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Analyzing Offense Patterns as a Function of Mental Illness to Test the Criminalization Hypothesis

by Jillian Peterson, Jennifer L. Skeem, Eliza Hart, Sarah Vidal, & Felicia Keith (2010).  Psychiatric Services, 61(12): 1217-1222.

The criminality of mentally ill persons is often popularly attributed to the "criminalization hypothesis," which posits that mentally ill offenders become involved with the criminal justice process because community resources are unavailable for them to address their mental health needs. Community resources are unavailable to mentally ill individuals, the hypothesis continues, because of insufficient public or governmental (or even private) funding, the closing down or deinstitutionalization of psychiatric hospitals, and so forth. But researchers and others have been challenging this hypothesis with evidence that common criminogenic rather than mental health factors are more convincing causal factors of mentally ill persons' criminality. 

In this article, Peterson et al. assess the criminalization hypothesis through interview and file data on 220 paroles, divided approximately in half for those with serious mental illness and those who were not mentally ill, in an inner-city district of Los Angeles. Members of these cohorts were divided into five classifications based on their lifetime pattern of offending: psychotic (violent offenses driven by delusions and hallucinations), disadvantaged (survival crimes such as shoplifting), reactive (crimes driven by hostility and impulsivity), instrumental (goal-driven, manipulative crimes), and gang- or drug-related affiliation. Recidivism in this study is defined reincarceration in a state prison for technical violations or new crimes within one year of release.

One-hundred (90%) of the mentally ill group were members of the reactive goup as were 74 (68%) of the non-mentally ill group. But gang-involvement and substance abuse were also common for those offenders driven by reactivity and impulsiveness. The group with the highest chance of returning to prison were reactive offenders (26%), the instrumental group (20%), psychotics (17%), and gang-drug group members (16%), a pattern of behavior that was similar for both mentally ill and non-mentally ill offenders.

The authors conclude that there is limited support for the criminalization hypothesis. Only eight (7%) of the 111 mentally ill offenders fit the criminalization hypothesis (six as a result of psychosis). Other key findings include:

Most offenders had patterns of criminal behavior driven by hostility, disinhibition, and emotional reactivity. Most of the reactive offenders with mental illness were also driven by substance abuse. In fact, the authors note, "the gang-drug and psychotic groups chiefly drove the overall difference between offenders with and without mental illness."

"Although psychiatric service linkage may reduce recidivism for a visible minority," the authors note, "treatment that targets impulsivity and other common criminogenic needs may be needed to prevent recidivism for the larger group." Intensive services and supervision, guided by small case loads and "firm but fair" relationships, may also be important probation officers and others working with these offenders.

For further information, contact Jennifer L. Skeem, Ph.D., Department of Social Ecology, University of California, Irvine, 3311 Social Ecology 11, Irvine, CA 92697-7085, (email)

Posted Thu, Aug 4 2011 4:55 PM by Tracey Vessels


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