Trouble With the Law: Assessing the Effect of Psychiatric and Substance Abuse Disorders on Likelihood of Contact With the Police and Courts Using Data From the National Comorbidity Survey

William H. Fisher, Univ. of Massachusetts Medical School
Steven Banks, Univ. of Massachusetts Medical School
Paul S. Applebaum, Univ. of Massachusetts Medical School
Bernice Fernandes, Univ. of Massachusetts Medical School

Background: Individuals with psychiatric and substance abuse disorders are disproportionately represented in the criminal justice sytem, but the risk associated with these disorders for contact with the legal system among persons in the general population has not been described identified. This study assesses the effect of these disorders on self-reported "trouble with the police and courts" in a 12-month period.

Method: The study analyzed data from the National Comorbidity Survey, a psychiatric epidemiologic study of a nationally representative sample of persons aged 15-54 living in U.S. households.

Results: Persons with psychiatric disorders were slightly less likely to report legal system problems than were persons with no diagnosis. Persons with substance abuse only were at substantially higher risk for such involvement. Persons with both disorders were at greatest risk for trouble with the police/courts, though the difference was not statistically significant compared with substance abusers alone.

Conclusions: Substance abuse, but not mental disorder, exacerbates risk for legal involvement. The effect of substance abuse occurs whether or not mental disorder is present. Interventions designed to reduce the legal involvement of persons with these disorders need to integrate treatment for both kinds of disorder.

(Return to Program Resources)

Updated 05/20/2006