Brain Injuries, Mental Health, PTSD and Substance Abuse Explain Criminal Behavior
I interviewed hundreds of offenders who successfully transitioned from a criminal to a law-abiding life. Asked what separated them from those who fail, they told me that it was their personal conviction to get out of crime. They also remarked that many offenders were just not ready for change. When asked what that meant, they often said that their peers were fighting demons they could not control.
New data about traumatic brain injuries helps explain why so many offenders don’t do well. Add mental health, PTSD and substance abuse concerns, it collectively suggests that there are reasons for offender dysfunction.
Parole and probation agents marvel over the inability of offenders to understand their actions. “No, you can’t hit your girlfriend,” stated the person running the class on domestic violence.
“No, you don’t get it,” said the offender on probation for domestic violence. “She started it with her constant crap, she won’t shut up unless I make her stop.” The offender just could not understand that he did not have the right to hit her.
I interviewed someone who beat and raped a woman who turned on to his street by mistake and asked for directions. He stated that if she was stupid enough to come on to his street, she deserved what she got.
Police officers encounter people who do not do well when confronted. Many suspects are immediately combative, threatening and dysfunctional when questioned, which leads officers to believe that they are responsible for a reported crime.
Personal dysfunction has been examined for decades as to why criminal offenders constantly make bad decisions. Most offenders recidivate; they return to the criminal justice system in massive numbers, Crime in America.
Even when provided with programs to address dysfunctional lifestyles, the vast majority of offenders do not do well, Crime in America.
Successful offenders, cops, family members and parole and probation agents marvel at people who constantly make bad decisions.
But we now know there are reasons for inexplicable actions.
Fifty-Four Percent Have a Serious Brain Injury
“Through a project that began five years ago, researchers have screened 4,100 people in jail, on probation or assigned to drug courts in Denver and five other counties to find out how many have traumatic brain injury — an impairment that could impact the likelihood of their return to the criminal justice system.”
“The results were stark: 54 percent had a history of serious brain injury, compared with 8 percent of the general population.”
“The initial screen used by researchers is a list of questions about previous head injuries, concussions, car accidents, assaults or partner abuse that involved blows to the head. Researchers aren’t counting people who’ve had their “bell rung” playing sports or were concussed after a fall. They’re concerned with the more serious injuries — those who’ve been knocked unconscious for 30 minutes or more or been in a coma; people who lost consciousness before age 15; and those who have sustained multiple blows to the head, perhaps because of domestic violence,” Denver Post.
Most Offenders Have Mental Health Issues
Those dealing with the offender population often describe many as, “Having a chip on their shoulder the size of Montana.” Hostility is often an everyday trait. Many of us believe that it’s related to massive child abuse and neglect, Crime in America.
We’ve known since a 2006 self-report study that more than half of all prison and jail inmates have mental health problems. These estimates represented 56% of state prisoners, 45% of federal prisoners, and 64% of jail inmates.
“Twenty percent of all US adults have some form of mental illness, but very few of them have a mental illness that will increase their likelihood of violence,” Slate.Com.
A 2017 report states that more than a third (37%) of prisoners had been told by a mental health professional in the past that they had a mental health disorder.
Forty-four percent of jail inmates had been told by a mental health professional in the past that they had a mental health disorder.
Some suggest that the numbers above are an undercount. Many are reluctant to admit to mental health concerns.
DOJ Report on Substance Abuse
More than half (58%) of state prisoners and two-thirds (63%) of sentenced jail inmates met the criteria for drug dependence or abuse, according to data collected through the National Inmate Surveys (NIS).
In comparison, approximately 5% of the total general population age 18 or older met the criteria for drug dependence or abuse, Bureau of Justice Statistics.
There is always a dispute between a formal diagnosis with drug use and mental health and the actual numbers of offenders impacted. It’s routine for correctional agencies to report that 80 to 90 percent of offenders have a substance abuse background.
According to the 2015 National Survey on Drug Use and Health (NSDUH), 86.4 percent of people ages 18 or older reported that they drank alcohol at some point in their lifetime; 70.1 percent reported that they drank in the past year; 56.0 percent reported that they drank in the past month.
Moreover, 26.9 percent of people ages 18 or older reported that they engaged in binge drinking in the past month in 2015, National Institute on Alcohol Abuse.
The vast majority of offenders abuse alcohol. Historically (and criminologically), alcohol is strongly connected to violent crime.
There are articles about people who live in high crime communities having PTSD because of their exposure to violence in their families and community. High crime area violence seems to be corrupting; it may influence people who can see violence as a necessary component of life, Crime in America.
Arrests and Drugs
Anywhere from 56 percent (Charlotte) to 82 percent (Chicago) of arrestees across sites tested positive for the presence of some substance at the time of arrest. In 9 out of the 10 sites in 2009, 60 percent or more of arrestees tested positive, ADAM and Drug Use at Arrest.
The vast majority of our discussions about crime, police encounters that go wrong, treatment failures and recidivism may be explained by the fact that offenders we encounter are very troubled people with brain injuries, PTSD, and mental health issues who self-medicate through drugs and alcohol.
As a police officer, you are likely to encounter multiple people daily who have very problematic backgrounds who are concurrently under the influence.
As a parole and probation agent, you deal with people who just can’t seem to function normally which is why the vast majority of people under supervision have large numbers of technical violations in addition to new crimes.
As a treatment provider, you wonder why so many people return to the criminal justice system.
It’s probable that the conditions mentioned above explain the chaotic nature of the lives of offenders. It’s equally probable that the root cause of justice involved people is child abuse that few are willing to acknowledge or address.
We have to come to grips that drug, alcohol and mental health treatments are expensive and have to be administered multiple times before they take effect.
It’s also obvious that we cannot treat our way out of this problem without a massive influx of new funds. The literature constantly cites examples of offenders not getting treatment. If we are going to adequately deal with crime in America, it must be through a comprehensive approach addressing child abuse and neglect, mental health and substance abuse.
It also means that police, correctional officers and parole and probation agents need greatly enhanced training or specialized units of highly trained people to deal with the obviously dysfunctional.
Dysfunction needs to be extended to police shootings and use of force to examine the offenders involved as to their backgrounds of trauma, mental illness, and substance abuse. If cops exist in a world of puzzling human behavior where firearms are common, then it seems to partially explain why some encounters go wrong.
The vast majority of face to face encounters with police officers are resolved professionally. An estimated 40 million U.S. residents age 16 or older, or about 17 percent of the population, had a face-to-face contact with a police officer in one year. Among people who had face-to-face contact, about nine out of 10 residents felt the police were respectful or acted properly, Bureau of Justice Statistics.
Thus when things go south, there have to be reasons why. Examining offender behavior and backgrounds should be a necessary component of police-involved shootings.
Leonard Adam Sipes, Jr. – Retired. Thirty-five years of public relations for national and state criminal justice agencies. Interviewed multiple times by every national news outlet. Former Senior Specialist for Crime Prevention for the Department of Justice’s clearinghouse. Former Director of Information Services, National Crime Prevention Council. Former Adjunct Associate Professor of criminology and public affairs-University of Maryland. Certificate of Advanced Study-Johns Hopkins University. You can contact me at [email protected].