Today, a coalition of nearly 50 advocacy groups and state legislators, led by the Center for Public Representation, The Arc of the United States, The Arc of Virginia, and the Autistic Self Advocacy Network, sent a letter calling on Virginia Governor Northam to right a decade of unjust treatment in a criminal justice system infected with systemic racism and ableism faced by Reginald “Neli” Latson, a young Black man with autism and intellectual disability. The letter demands that Governor Northam grant Mr. Latson a full pardon, commit to continue funding his disability services in Florida where he and his family now reside, and issue a public apology to Mr. Latson and his family.
Neli Latson should be a free man. Instead, he’s faced a decade of unjust prosecution and abuse in a criminal justice system where, as a young Black disabled man, he’s experienced the disastrous combination of systemic racism and ableism. As the nation faces a critical turning point in the fight against systemic racism and racial injustice — including the compounding injustices facing Black people with disabilities — it is time to #FreeNeli.
In 2010, Mr. Latson was an 18-year-old special education student, sitting outside of a library in Stafford County, Virginia, waiting for it to open. Someone called the police reporting a “suspicious” Black male, possibly with a gun. Mr. Latson had committed no crime and was not armed. The resulting confrontation with a deputy was the beginning of years of horrific abuse in the criminal justice system. The prosecutors refused to consider Mr. Latson’s disabilities and rejected an offer of disability services as an alternative to incarceration. Instead, he was punished in the criminal justice system with long periods of solitary confinement, Taser shocks, and the use of a full-body restraint chair for hours on end for behaviors related to his disabilities. At one point, Mr. Latson was even locked up in a small jail cell with no sink or toilet for days.
Virginia and national disability advocates urged then-Virginia Governor Terry McAuliffe to grant a pardon to Mr. Latson. In 2015, Governor McAuliffe granted him a conditional pardon, requiring him to live in a restrictive residential setting and be subjected to on-going supervision by the criminal justice system. The terms of his 2015 conditional pardon mean that he could be sent back to jail at any time, causing Mr. Latson to experience constant anxiety.
“Mr. Latson’s case is a tragic example of how disability is too often criminalized, especially for Black people with disabilities,” said Alison Barkoff, Director of Advocacy at the Center for Public Representation. “Virginia must begin to address the systemic racism and ableism in its criminal justice system. We call on Governor Northam to take an important first step by granting a full pardon to Mr. Latson.”
Advocates have fought tirelessly for justice for Mr. Latson for nearly a decade and will keep fighting until we #FreeNeli.