How Often and How Consistently do Symptoms Directly Precede Criminal Behavior Among Offenders With Mental Illness?

Although offenders with mental illness are overrepresented in the criminal justice system, psychiatric symptoms relate weakly to criminal behavior at the group level. In this study of 143 offenders with mental illness, we use data from intensive interviews and record reviews to examine how often and how consistently symptoms lead directly to criminal behavior. First, crimes rarely were directly motivated by symptoms, particularly when the definition of symptoms excluded externalizing features that are not unique to Axis I illness. Specifically, of the 429 crimes coded, 4% related directly to psychosis, 3% related directly to depression, and 10% related directly to bipolar disorder (including impulsivity). Second, within offenders, crimes varied in the degree to which they were directly motivated by symptoms. These findings suggest that programs will be most effective in reducing recidivism if they expand beyond psychiatric symptoms to address strong variable risk factors for crime like antisocial traits.