ADHD and Implications for the Criminal Justice System


By Sam Goldstein, Ph.D.

Though much remains to be learned, research has provided the criminal justice community practical insights into Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder.

Dr. Goldstein is a clinical instructor at the University of Utah School of Medicine in Salt Lake City.

Interaction between the mental health and criminal justice professions traditionally occurs over issues such as a defendant’s claim of temporary insanity or overt mental disorders exhibited by criminal offenders. Recently, however, professionals in these two fields have begun to explore a broader range of behavioral disorders that could bring individuals into contact with the criminal justice system.

This article focuses on one set of temperamental qualities that occur in a small but significant group of people. The mental health community refers to these qualities under the diagnostic description Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD).1 Because individuals with ADHD come into contact with the criminal justice system at a statistically higher rate than others in the general population,2 criminal justice officials, including police administrators, should be aware of the implications ADHD has for the profession.


Problems characterized as attention disorders and hyperactivity have long constituted the most chronic childhood behavioral disorders and the largest sources of referral to child mental health centers.3 Moreover, the diagnosis of ADHD among children and adolescents is increasing consistently. In 1993, nearly 2 million children and adolescents were diagnosed or being treated for ADHD.4 It appears that this number will continue to rise in the years to come.


Symptoms of ADHD largely stem from impulsive, non-thinking behavior. ADHD reflects an exaggeration of normal behavior–either too much or too little of what should be expected in a given environment.

Often, individuals with ADHD know what to do, but in the heat of the moment their sense of immediate need overwhelms their limited capacity for self-control. They act. Thus, their behavior might be inconsistent and unpredictable. If prone to violent behavior, their actions may be difficult to anticipate from moment to moment.

Three additional behavioral qualities of individuals with ADHD merit consideration. First, these individuals do not respond well to repetitive, effortful, uninteresting activities that others choose for them. It is not so much that they cannot pay attention but that they do not pay attention as well as others under demanding circumstances.

Second, in addition to a low threshold for emotional arousal, many individuals diagnosed with ADHD exhibit very strong emotional reactions. Thus, little things often provoke a disproportionately dramatic response. As adults, these individuals may be labeled as stress-intolerant.5 Many are described simply as short-tempered.

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