How Do Youth with Mental Disorders Fare in the Juvenile Justice System?

Pinka Chatterji, Alison Cuellar

NBER Working Paper No. 12437
Issued in August 2006
NBER Program(s):Health Economics

The purpose of this paper is to examine the relationship between mental health problems and justice outcomes. Several studies have documented that individuals with a variety of mental disorders are overrepresented in the justice system. This pattern could result if persons with mental disorders are more likely to commit crimes, or more likely to commit serious crimes, than persons without disorders. In addition, individuals with mental disorders may be more likely than those without disorders to be sanctioned conditional on committing a particular crime. The major public policy concern is around the latter possibility, which has been interpreted as the justice system being biased against those with mental disorders. In this paper we explore several channels through which mental health problems, measured as ADHD and depression, may lead to over-representation in the criminal justice system. Using a large sample of adolescents, our findings show that youth with ADHD fare worse in the juvenile justice system in terms of the probability of being arrested and the probability of conviction once arrested. We find that elevated ADHD symptoms during adolescence are associated with statistically significant and meaningful increases in the probability of arrest and conviction after controlling for preexisting factors and mechanisms that may arise from the disorder itself.

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Document Object Identifier (DOI): 10.3386/w12437

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