The Cautionary Instruction: Psychotropic medication and crime rates

Friday, 22 June 2012 06:00 AM Written by  Matt Mangino

20120622_brain_photocom145182784_150Since the 1990s, crime rates have fallen considerably in cities large and small, across all regions of the country and all socioeconomic status. There are many theories about why crime rates have decreased so dramatically and so pervasively. Theories include a decline in the demand for crack cocaine, incarceration, an aging population even abortion.

Another reason suggested for the decline in crime was the consistent growth in the size of police forces and the modernizing of policing strategies. Policing resources are now on the decline. Last week, The Cautionary Instruction took an initial look at how a sour economy may yet have a negative impact on crime rates.

Today, we examine how a cut back in mental health treatment could impact crime rates ...

Medication has vastly improved the treatment of mental illness. In the last 20 years, 10 million more adults began using pharmacotherapy. During that same time period violent crime has steadily declined


A study entitled, A Cure for Crime? Psycho-Pharmaceuticals and Crime Trends found an association between an increased use of psychiatric drugs and a decrease in violent crime. The largest impact is associated with new antidepressants and stimulants used to treat ADHD. The report suggested that about 12 percent of the recent decrease in crime is due to expanded pharmacotherpy.

The new drugs introduced in the 1980s and 1990s were a substantial improvement over the methods of treatment dominating the mental health field at the time.

The symptoms of mental illness can contribute to violent criminal behavior. The manifestations of mental illness include various forms of behavior that generate problems for offenders on the street, or while institutionalized. Those symptoms include delusions, hallucinations, apathy, aggression, impulse control, deficits in social functioning and inappropriate interaction with others.

Violence may result when the symptoms of mental illness create a perception of threats, paranoia and the weakening of self control.

During the last 20 years, if violent crime rates had remained consistent with the violent crime rate in 1992, an additional 170,000 Americans would have been murdered.

How can we determine if mental health medication has had an impact on crime rates? In The Great American Crime Decline, University of California at Berkeley Professor Frank Zimring compared the decline in crime in the United States with that of Canada. Crime in Canada fell nearly as precipitously as in the U.S. In Canada there was no corresponding increase in police personnel, no increase in prison population, and no evidence of a violence fueled crack epidemic.

The common theme in the U.S. and Canada was that both countries were among the world’s leaders in treating mental illness with new psychiatric medications. No one can convincingly explain with certitude the astounding decline in violent crime, but the use of psychotropic medication cannot be discounted.

(Image: Antique medical illustration of right brain. Mark Strozier/Getty Images)

Matthew T. Mangino is the former district attorney of Lawrence County. He currently serves on the Pennsylvania Board of Probation and Parole. He is a featured columnist for the Pennsylvania Law Weekly and a regular contributor to the Youngstown Vindicator. You can read his musings on crime and punishment at

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