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Emerging Adults with Psychiatric Disabilities Involved with the Criminal Justice System

Stephanie W. Hartwell, William H. Fisher, and Maryann Davis (2010).  International Journal of Offender Therapy and Comparative Criminology, 54(5), 756-768.

 Criminologists generally posit that criminal activity peaks between the ages of 15 and 19, after which young offenders, entering adulthood, start to desist from this behavior. Young people with psychiatric disabilities, however, are often expected to misbehave longer, peaking in the 18-20 year range. As Stephanie Hartwell, William Fisher, and Maryann Davis note, “emerging adulthood” is a critically important developmental life stage. In this study, these Boston area researchers, all from the University of Massachusetts, examine the assumption that “emerging adults with psychiatric illnesses and criminal histories seem destined to become life-course persistent offenders.” In particular, they describe a group of such emerging adults, comparing them with older counterparts who have in fact persisted well into adulthood with their criminal activities.

Hartwell, Fisher, and Davis use data collected from the Massachusetts Department of Mental Health’s Forensic Transition Team (FTT), which starts a case management service-delivery process with young adults nearing the end of their prison terms. The basic premise is that the provision of appropriate benefits and services at the time of an offender’s prison release or community reentry will reduce the likelihood or rearrest. This is a fundamental design feature of services “at the interface of the mental health and criminal and juvenile justice systems.” The data in this study cover 1,080 FTT-eligible offenders (primarily ages 18-25, with a smaller share 47 and older) who entered local county houses of correction (jails) and state prisons in Massachusetts over the period April 1998 to July 2005.

This study compares the two age groups, those 18-25 and those 47 and older, in terms of background characteristics and short-term post-release outcomes. The two age groups differ in some respects: the younger cohort is less educated and contains more ethnic minorities, Latinos in particular. They are also more likely to become involved with community supervision, which, because or probation or parole violations, is likely to become more deeply involved with the criminal justice system rather than mental health care. Overall, Hartwell, Fisher, and Davis find the “emerging adult” group distinct developmentally, demographically, clinically, and criminally.

Mentally disordered offenders in the “emerging adult” group are in a difficult spot. Hartwell, Fisher, and Davis observe that “disruptions in the accumulation of skills, including employment, education, and networks, reflect real difficulties in developing normative socialization processes and subsequent high risk for continued criminal justice involvement. Many of the factors that prevent initial offending and promote desistance among individuals who do offend – good marriages, meaningful work, and entry into conventional roles – are less available to young adults who have significant mental health issues. The presence of psychiatric disabilities interferes with acquiring or capitalizing these new opportunities. Limited opportunities, in turn, expose them to numerous risk factors for further criminal justice involvement.”  

Hartwell, Fisher, and Davis suggest several options to move beyond “a combination of social and biological factors and social control mechanisms that value a criminal justice rather than a public health approach to managing persons returning to the community post-release.” These options, in fact, pose challenges to both criminal justice and mental health systems:

·         Mental health approaches may be necessary, but they may also be insufficient, as even case management and residential services may have only limited influence on risk of rearrest; and

·         Mental health services must fit with demographic, social, and criminal involvement characteristics, but the institutional processes that direct offenders more deeply into the criminal justice system must also be understood.

Interestingly, the authors conclude that the emerging adult group “may need more support, coercion, and assistance ‘attaching’ to normative group roles such as ‘student,’ ‘worker,’ or ‘spouse.’ But because their lives have been managed by institutions, they have lacked the opportunity to develop social control, social skills, and social networks necessary to attach to roles and fend for themselves in the community. If they continue to be in deficit of such supports and skills, they will remain on track, or perhaps are being tracked, to be life-course-persistent offenders.”

For further information, contact Stephanie W. Hartwell, Ph.D., University of Massachusetts, Boston, 100 Morrissey Blvd., Boston, MA 02125-3393, (e-mail)



Posted Fri, Mar 11 2011 4:49 PM by Tracey Vessels


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