NCPA - National Center for Policy Analysis

Prisons Full of "Retarded"

October 24, 2003

In June 2002, the United States Supreme Court ruled it unconstitutional for a mentally retarded person to be executed. It did not take long for a burst of retardation claims to begin flowing from death-row inmates, says the Philadelphia Inquirer.

The article reports that:

  • In civilian life, the mentally retarded are widely considered to be up 2 to 3 percent of the population.
  • In contrast, an estimated 10 percent of the nation's 3,500 prisoners facing execution are pressing appeals to downgrade their punishment to life in prison based on mental retardation.
  • In Philadelphia and its four surrounding Pennsylvania counties, 12.5 percent of the convicted murderers on death row have pending retardation claims.

Making matters more contentious is the fact that the definition of retardation is unclear: some claim that an IQ lower than 70 with a lack of specific adaptive skills constitutes retardation. Legal definitions are still more vague.

Source: L. Stuart Ditzen, "Suddenly, prisons full of 'retarded'," Philadelphia Inquirer, September 28, 2003.


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