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Mental Health and Juvenile Arrests: Criminality, Criminalization, or Compassion?

NCJ Number
Criminology Volume: 44 Issue: 3 Dated: August 2006 Pages: 593-630
Date Published
August 2006
38 pages

This study examined the extent to which arrested and nonarrested youth varied in their levels of prior psychological symptoms, and it tested several possible explanations for these differences.


Arrested youth exhibited more behavioral problems related to attention deficit hyperactivity (ADH), oppositional defiant (OD) behaviors, and nondelinquent acting-out symptoms prior to their first arrests compared to the youth who had never been arrested. Arrested and non-arrested youth, however, scored similarly on prior emotional and anxiety problems and internalizing symptoms. This suggests that internalizing problems lowered the risk of subsequent arrest; whereas, OD problems and nondelinquent acting-out behaviors increased the risk of arrest. ADH problems had no effects on arrest rates. The positive effects of OD, ADH, and acting-out problems on arrest persisted even after taking into account the strong positive effects on arrest of Black racial status, low socioeconomic status, and family criminality. The interpretation that mentally disordered youth are at greater risk for delinquency and substance use received some support in the findings. Involvement in serious delinquency and alcohol use fully explained the impact of ADH on arrest. The low risk of arrest for youth with only internalized symptoms of mental disorder suggests that police, when having reason to engage such youth, may view them as requiring mental health intervention; whereas, youth manifesting OD problems may be viewed as willfully engaged in delinquent behavior. Recommendations pertain to policy and research. Data were collected as part of the Pittsburgh Youth Study, a prospective longitudinal study of the development of delinquency, substance use, and mental health problems. In 1987 and 1988, random samples of first and seventh grade boys enrolled in public schools were selected. Approximately 850 boys in each grade were screened. The study addressed limitations in earlier research. 6 tables and 68 references

Date Published: August 1, 2006