Find Out What The Criminalization Hypothesis Is

Criminalization Hypothesis

Have you ever heard of the criminalization hypothesis? The basic premise is that individuals with serious mental illnesses (SMI) (i.e. schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, mainly) are disproportionately involved in the criminal justice system because they are committing crimes and being arrested for offenses because of their untreated illness symptoms.

Abramson, more than 30 years ago, was the first to discuss “criminalization.” He believed that individuals with SMI are being routed through the criminal justice system instead of the mental health system.  He observed that trend in the early 1970s.


Defenders of the criminalization hypothesis cite studies (among others) such as Linda Teplin’s 1984 Chicago study in which it was found that individuals with a mental illness were arrested at a higher rate than those without a mental illness. The rate of arrests for individuals deemed mentally ill was 46.7 % compared to 27.9 % for individuals not appearing to have a mental illness. Teplin concluded from her study that individuals who appeared to be mentally ill had a higher probability of being arrested than those who did not. In her opinion, “clearly the way we treat our mentally ill is criminal.”

Not Everyone Agrees

Not everyone agrees with the criminalization hypothesis. Scientifically, it is difficult to prove. Within academic circles, it is a debate that may never be resolved.

In a future post, I will discuss alternative theories. What do you think?

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Mentally Ill Offenders By The Numbers

 Within the academic literature and government data, there exists a great deal of variability with regard to the numbers of mentally ill offenders in the US penal system. It can be difficult to know how big the problem is. Also complicating matters is that some reports estimate “mental illness,” “mental health problems,” while others estimate “serious mental illness.” The way in which those are defined matter. Below is a look at some of those figures.

Government Reports

  • The 2006 Bureau of Justice Report (BJS) cited that 1,264,000 individuals had mental health problems. A 1999 BJS reported cited approximately 283,000.

Journal Article Reports

  • In 2007, Lamb and colleagues estimated that 15% of the 2.1 million prisoners had a severe mental illness.
  • A study of Utah’s state prisoners estimated that 23% of the over 9,200 had a severe mental illness.
  • Steadman and colleagues estimated that about 50% of individuals in jails across the United States would be considered severely mentally ill.

Non-Peer Review Reports 

  • In 2003 a Human Rights Watch report estimated that 200,000 to 400,000 prisoners are mentally ill.
  • The Treatment Advocacy Center and The National Sheriffs’ Association looked at data in 16 states and estimated that about 15 to 20% of inmates had a serious mental illness.