Criminal offending in schizophrenia over a 25-year period marked by deinstitutionalization and increasing prevalence of comorbid substance use disorders

Cameron Wallace, Paul E Mullen, Philip Burgess
American Journal of Psychiatry 2004, 161 (4): 716-27

OBJECTIVE: This study examined the pattern of criminal convictions in persons with schizophrenia over a 25-year period marked by both radical deinstitutionalization and increasing rates of substance abuse problems among persons with schizophrenia in the community.

METHOD: The criminal records of 2,861 patients (1,689 of whom were male) who had a first admission for schizophrenia in the Australian state of Victoria in 1975, 1980, 1985, 1990, and 1995 were compared for the period from 1975 to 2000 with those of an equal number of community comparison subjects matched for age, gender, and neighborhood of residence.

RESULTS: Relative to the comparison subjects, the patients with schizophrenia accumulated a greater total number of criminal convictions (8,791 versus 1,119) and were significantly more likely to have been convicted of a criminal offense (21.6% versus 7.8%) and of an offense involving violence (8.2% versus 1.8%). The proportion of patients who had a conviction increased from 14.8% of the 1975 cohort to 25.0% of the 1995 cohort, but a proportionately similar increase from 5.1% to 9.6% occurred among the comparison subjects. Rates of known substance abuse problems among the schizophrenia patients increased from 8.3% in 1975 to 26.1% in 1995. Significantly higher rates of criminal conviction were found for patients with substances abuse problems than for those without substance abuse problems (68.1% versus 11.7%).

CONCLUSIONS: A significant association was demonstrated between having schizophrenia and a higher rate of criminal convictions, particularly for violent offenses. However, the rate of increase in the frequency of convictions over the 25-year study period was similar among schizophrenia patients and comparison subjects, despite a change from predominantly institutional to community care and a dramatic escalation in the frequency of substance abuse problems among persons with schizophrenia. The results do not support theories that attempt to explain the mediation of offending behaviors in schizophrenia by single factors, such as substance abuse, active symptoms, or characteristics of systems of care, but suggest that offending reflects a range of factors that are operative before, during, and after periods of active illness.

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