Disability Rights Advocacy to Prevent Unnecessary Institutionalization

Lewis Bossing, J.D., Leslie Napper, and Oscar Daniel Lopez, J.D.

Far too many people with lived experience with mental health conditions are unnecessarily institutionalized, or incarcerated in jails and prisons, because of inadequate public mental health systems. In many localities there is a group of people with significant mental health conditions who cycle frequently between the hospital, the jail, and homelessness. Many of these “familiar faces” are all too familiar to police and other law enforcement officers, who are often called to serve emergency petitions for involuntary treatment of these individuals. Black, brown, and Indigenous people with disabilities are typically overrepresented in the “familiar face” population.

Legal advocates are exploring new ways to break this cycle, from seeking greater capacity for voluntary community-based services through Olmstead v. Lois Curtis litigation, to advancing other theories of discrimination. As the U.S. Department of Justice recently said, “a behavioral health-focused response should be available to people experiencing behavioral health issues instead of a traditional law enforcement response.” It is discrimination when an ambulance is sent to respond to a call for help involving a person with a physical disability or medical issue, but the police respond to a call involving a person with a mental health disability.

This workshop will discuss recent litigation to address the intersection of mental health disability, race, and the criminal legal system, including review of recent U.S. Department of Justice Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) enforcement actions. The three co-panelists all work on the litigation Disability Rights California v. Alameda County, a private ADA lawsuit addressing the cycling of individuals with serious mental health disabilities through Alameda’s public hospital and jail. The panel will review the legal claims against Alameda County, and the remedies advocates are seeking for violations of the ADA. DRC’s Leslie Napper and Oscar Lopez will also discuss how they have engaged with members of the racial justice movement in Alameda County to help garner support for DRC’s legal advocacy.

Learning objectives for the presentation include:

  • Appreciating the harmful and repeated cycling of people with mental health disabilities through our country’s emergency rooms and hospitals, jails and prisons, and homelessness.
  • Understanding how the Americans with Disabilities Act may be used to help stop this cycle and build capacity to provide the community-based mental health services that help people avoid contact with law enforcement and subsequent institutionalization and incarceration.
  • Identifying the information advocates can obtain to understand whether states and localities are violating the ADA.
  • Identifying strategies for engaging community-based organizations to advance community-defined remedies.