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The Connection between ADHD, Incarceration, and Recidivism is Real.

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Untreated ADHD in Adolescent Inmates and Recidivism

The following is a guest post. In my career, almost every teenage client that I’ve had was already involved in the juvenile justice system when I met them. This is an issue that I am passionate about. ~LL


I recently had the opportunity to learn from noted criminal appeals attorney Todd Mosser and New Jersey family law attorney Katherine Wagner about untreated ADHD among adolescents in the prison population. The connection between ADHD, incarceration, and recidivism is real.

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What is ADHD and What Does it Do?

If you are a regular reader of this website, you likely already know what ADHD is. However, I wanted to put a quick overview of ADHD for those who don’t, and for those who need reminding.

Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder is a medical condition.  A person with ADHD has differences in brain development and brain activity that affect his or her ability to pay attention, sit still, and exercise self-control.

Because many people with ADHD are undiagnosed, it is impossible to fix a precise count of those with the disorder. The American Psychiatric Association estimates that 8.4% of children and 2.5% of adults have ADHD. The National Center for Health Statistics maintains that almost 12% of teenagers are diagnosed with ADHD.

There is a clear connection between the behavioral attributes of ADHD and the likelihood of running afoul of the law. Approximately two-thirds of adolescent offenders and half of the adult prison population in our country exhibits signs of having ADHD.

Why? There are several reasons. Untreated ADHD increases the risk of substance abuse, including abuse of illicit drugs, because those individuals feel the need to self-medicate. Teens living with ADHD are often impulsive and inattentive, which may lead to minor infractions of the law, often unwittingly.

And, as we often say here, “ADHD rarely travels alone.” ODD (Oppositional Defiant Disorder) often occurs along with ADHD and may cause an untreated adolescent to create or exacerbate conflict with others, including law enforcement.

Inmates with ADHD

“Symptoms of ADHD, specifically reward deficiency, behavioral inhibition, and attention deficits, may affect whether individuals will be successful in their experiences in court, with probation, and during incarceration,” writes Colleen M. Berryessa in Attention, reward, and inhibition: symptomatic features of ADHD and issues for offenders in the criminal justice system.

“Recognizing that at least some of an offender’s behavior may be related to symptoms of ADHD will help the criminal justice system better provide recommendations regarding sentencing, probation, and treatment provisions, as well as better ensure that offenders with ADHD have a more successful and just experience in their interactions with the criminal justice system.”

Reducing the Risk of Recidivism with ADHD Diagnosis and Treatment in Prison

The social and monetary costs of incarceration are well-known, and reducing recidivism is one way to curb that cost.

Inmates should be screened for ADHD, as they are in Great Britain. After screening they should receive the appropriate cognitive behavior therapy and training in social skills, conflict resolution techniques, and self-calming techniques.

Adult inmates diagnosed with ADHD would then have something they can work on, and work toward, while they are incarcerated. This can reduce the likelihood they will re-offend in some way related to their ADHD symptoms.

Does Your Adolescent Show Signs of Having ADHD?

Of course, you can take him or her to be diagnosed, but what comes after diagnosis? Your compassion and empathy and patience, of course, but also the responsibility to help your child avoid getting into the kind of trouble that can land them in jail.

It is crucial that your child learn self-awareness as a path to self-control and practice conflict resolution techniques. He or she must also be impressed with the importance of taking turns in conversations and complying with the directions of authority figures.

These skills require practice, so seek the assistance of a therapist or special education counselor or teacher, if your child qualifies for special education program at school. Knowledge is power – if your child knows that he or she has a tendency to behave in X way that might get them into trouble, they might attach more importance to developing techniques to cope with that behavior.


Blog Owner’s Note: And this is why parents have to arm themselves with IEP knowledge. Because the problems often start in school and snowball from there.

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About the Author

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Veronica Baxter blogs and works as a legal assistant in the great city of Philadelphia. She plays soccer in a recreational league and is a rabid Philadelphia Union and Sky Blue fan. She is committed to social justice and volunteers at a local soup kitchen and as a roofer and framer with Habitat for Humanity.

Veronica lives in a renovated south Philly row home with her husband John, their two rescue poodles, Connor and Camelot, a full aquarium of African Cichlids, and several rescue cats (the number changes almost daily!).

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