Pennsylvania Supreme Court Justice On a Mission to Make Courts More Autism Aware

Disparities in the criminal justice system have been a big topic of discussion over the past several years. One man in Pennsylvania wants that discussion to include people with autism, as well.

Pennsylvania Supreme Court Justice Kevin Dougherty says the state’s court system is not doing a good enough job recognizing and dealing appropriately with defendants on the spectrum. He’s holding town halls throughout the state to get the message out. His goal is to get police, district attorneys, and judges to understand that a defendant appearing to act out may actually have autism and different communication skills.

He knows this from an experience he had on the bench that opened his eyes. A defendant was unresponsive and wouldn’t look him in the eye, which he found “borderline delinquent.” Then the young man’s mother explained he had autism.

PHOTO: PA COURTS

Dougherty explains, “I was humiliated and embarrassed that I had no idea about autism or how to handle a youth, and here I always thought I was a forward-thinking judge. So that was a humbling moment for me, and I thought I could be ignorant once if I don’t ignore it or I could continually be ignorant if I don’t do something about it.”

In order to get the courtroom to be more manageable for those with autism, suggested changes include dimming the courtroom lights or moving conferences to the back of the room to help avoid sensory overload or allowing advocates to take part even if they’re not on the official list of participants. Dougherty says these changes may not yet have happened because courts are slow to change when it comes to things they don’t understand.

Kate Hooven from the Pennsylvania autism organization ASERT says understanding is the first step.

She explains, “That’s what we need, to take that extra step to educate and to learn and we are all going to be better people as a result of it.”

PHOTO: PIXABAY/DAVID MARK

Dougherty stressed that there is a “just” in “justice system,” and it’s important for court staff to appreciate when someone may have different needs. It’s also necessary for them to show compassion and empathy.

He says, “I want the conversation to spark an understanding, or at least an awareness. I’ve learned that autism is not a disability. It’s just a different ability. While it seems like it’s cliché-ish, it’s essential to a decent, civilized society.”

Dougherty recognizes that the courtroom is never a happy place for someone to visit, but it’s important that everyone in one feels heard. Without changes, he feels the courts could be failing people who need them the most, even if it’s not intentional.

He says, “I often say ‘the robe we wear should not be a symbol of fear, it should be a beacon of hope.’ I’m hoping to be that lighthouse.”

PHOTO: PIXABAY/SANG HYUN CHO

For now, he holds out hope that the courts can self-reform on this issue, ultimately leading to judicial reform. There is also a plan to produce a bench book for judges on appropriately interacting with and helping defendants on the spectrum.

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