Mental health advocates seek relief for autistic Va. inmate

AP News
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Posted: Jan 04, 2015 10:33 AM

RICHMOND, Va. (AP) — Mental health and civil liberties advocates are urging Gov. Terry McAuliffe to intervene in the case of a Virginia inmate with autism who faces trial Wednesday for allegedly assaulting a correctional officer.

Reginald "Neli" Latson's supporters and lawyers say he needs treatment, not punishment, for intellectual disabilities that they say have caused his three clashes with law enforcement since 2010. They have asked McAuliffe to grant conditional clemency so Latson can be moved to a secure treatment facility in Florida that has agreed to accept him.

McAuliffe spokesman Brian Coy said the governor is concerned but can't do anything until the pending charge is resolved in Stafford County Circuit Court. Latson faces six months to five years behind bars if convicted.

Latson, 23, already has twice been jailed for assaulting police officers. His supporters say those incidents stem from a "fight or flight" reflex associated with his autism spectrum disorder.

"He is in prison because law enforcement, prosecutors, and correctional officers failed to understand or accommodate his disabilities, a problem that more and more people with autism and other developmental disabilities are experiencing when they interact with the criminal justice system," American Civil Liberties Union of Virginia executive director Claire Guthrie Gastanaga wrote in a Dec. 23 letter to McAuliffe.

Stafford County Commonwealth's Attorney Eric Olsen, who is prosecuting the latest charge against Latson, did not return telephone messages about the case.

The Arc of the United States, a mental health advocacy organization, and its Virginia chapter also have asked the governor to intervene.

"Mr. Latson is caught in a recurring cycle of prosecution and punishment due to factors related to his disabilities. He is not a criminal," ARC of the United States CEO Peter V. Berns wrote last month.

According to his lawyers and supporters, Latson's legal troubles began in 2010 when he was approached by a police officer responding to a report of a suspicious person outside the Stafford County library. Latson, a young black man wearing a hoodie, refused to identify himself. When the officer grasped Latson's arm to take him into custody, Latson hit him.

"This is the sort of situation that an autistic young man simply cannot comprehend — he had done nothing wrong and yet the officer was restraining him — and the actions of the officer seemed threatening to Neli because he does not understand social roles the way others do," Latson's attorney, Julie M. Carpenter, wrote in the first letter to McAuliffe last May. Carpenter declined through an associate to comment further.

After a few months in jail, Latson was moved into a residential treatment program in Grafton in February 2012. Carpenter said in her letter that Latson did well there and in 2013 was moved into a group home, where he became agitated during a phone call with his mother and stormed out. Police were called, and Latson tried to take the officer's gun to kill himself, according to Carpenter. The officer was uninjured.

That incident landed Latson back in jail and led to the latest confrontation. Latson was being transferred to a sparsely equipped "crisis cell" when he allegedly punched a guard. Had he not been charged in that incident, Carpenter said in her letter, Latson would have been released in February and immediately taken to the Florida treatment center.

Latson's supporters say he has spent much of his time behind bars in solitary confinement, worsening his condition. He has been allowed more time out of his cell in recent weeks.

Alison Barkoff, director of advocacy for the Bazelon Center for Mental Health Law, said Latson's case is emblematic of a systemic problem that prompted a federal investigation of Virginia's mental health system. Barkoff previously was a U.S. Department of Justice lawyer who helped negotiate a 2012 settlement that requires the state to improve training and expand community services over the next 10 years.

While much of the focus in Latson's case has been on law enforcement, Barkoff said the group home staff also erred in calling police instead of mental health crisis personnel. One of the goals of the settlement, she said, is to minimize interactions between police and people with developmental disabilities.