Background Factors

As explained in detail on the “What is ADHD?” page, the defining triad of ADHD symptoms are distractibility, impulsivity, and hyperactivity. These impairments increase the risk of academic, professional and personal issues for those with ADHD- especially when left unrecognized and untreated.

Increased difficulty achieving mainstream social success can lead to the development of esteem issues, a sense of feeling misunderstood and a tendency towards the social failure deviant peer pathway. Individuals with ADHD may show greater susceptibility to gangs, as a means of finding social acceptance and achievement.

Individuals with ADHD cannot inhibit prepotent responses – i.e. responses that favor short-term reinforcement at the cost of long-term outcomes. In other words, ADHD interferes with one’s ability to consider the consequences of their actions.

The reward deficit common among individuals with ADHD can result in the need for more frequent, novel, and intense rewards to become and stay motivated. This can lead to sensation-seeking behavior, such as risk-taking and substance abuse. Many individuals with ADHD also engage in substance abuse as a means of self-medication. For these reasons, individuals with ADHD are significantly more likely to engage in substance abuse and develop issues with addiction than someone without ADHD.

ADHD has also been linked to an increased likelihood of developing Oppositional Defiant Disorder (ODD) and Conduct Disorder (CD), characterized by behaviors such as:

  • Defiance, stubbornness, temper problems (ODD)
  • Aggression, theft, destruction of property (CD)
  • Other serious violations of societal rules

So, what does this have to do with the Criminal Justice System?

As we’ve seen, ADHD has a significant influence over the behavior of effected individuals. As shown by its prevalence in the prison population, the role this disorder plays in one’s decision-making process is particularly relevant to issues of criminal justice.

While ADHD is not an excuse for inappropriate or rule-breaking behavior, it has been shown that those with ADHD are more likely to engage in criminal activity when exposed to a criminogenic environment. This was demonstrated by Russ Barkley’s study of US youth, matched for socioeconomic settings and followed for 10 years, which found that:

  • 20% of the control group without ADHD were arrested, compared to 48% of the ADHD group
  • Members of the control group were arrested on average 2.1 times compared to 6.4 times for the ADHD group