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Bringing a Disability Lens to Criminal Legal Reform in Baltimore

“You neglect yourself when you don’t have that one secure place,” said an individual describing the experience of avoiding taking medications while living in a homeless shelter.  “If I have medications that maybe I don’t want folks to see, that may look like me not going to pick those up from the pharmacy at all.”

Insights like this were among the comments gathered by the People’s Commission to Decriminalize Maryland during listening sessions that created space for people with lived experience to share about the connections between their identities — including disability — and criminalization. The Commission held these sessions in 2019 as part of their efforts to reduce the disparate impact of the justice system and historically marginalized youth and adults, supported by seed funding from Open Society Institute (OSI)-Baltimore. 

In 2021, OSI-Baltimore funded the anchor advocacy organization Baltimore Action Legal Team (BALT) to serve as the Commission’s project manager. BALT made a sub-grant of $10,000 to Disability Rights Maryland (DRM), enabling Munib Lohrasbi, a disability rights attorney, to lead and inform one of five work groups, the homelessness work group. Lohrasbi, who has deep expertise in legal and political advocacy, shares that his own background helped him support community members in communicating their experiences in ways that the public and legislators could understand.

Reflecting on the different work groups and disability, BALT Executive Director Iman Freedman said “we all realized it all intersected, especially because of the population being addressed, and folks with disabilities were often impacted more.” 

The stories of people with lived experience empowered the Commission to demonstrate to legislators how disability overlaps with other identities to contribute to unjust arrests of unhoused people under Maryland’s broad “Failure to Obey Lawful Order” law. 

For example, unhoused people with physical disabilities revealed issues leading to their arrests when they could not obey orders to put their hands over their heads or lie flat on the ground. And people with intellectual and psychosocial disabilities spoke about circumstances when they did not understand police orders or when they reacted with anxiety, leading to arrest.

These experiences informed a BALT-proposed Bill aiming to address shortcomings of the “Failure to Obey Lawful Order” law so it does not unfairly target unhoused people (predominantly people of color with other overlapping identities such as disability). BALT has since secured legislative sponsors and the Bill is actively under consideration in 2023, so the battle for reform is not yet won. But in addition to a potential legislative victory, community members report that the Commission process has helped them to recognize how their experiences result from systemic issues more than individual failures, validating their feelings of injustice. 

OSI-Baltimore continued to provide funding to BALT to support the Commission and the vital work beyond this one grant. This is a powerful example of how successful policy change and organizing become possible when grantmakers provide long-term funding with flexible timelines, supporting the work of bringing people together to address injustices across identities and life experiences.