How ADHD May Lead to Trouble With the Law

Medically Reviewed by Dan Brennan, MD on July 17, 2022
5 min read

ADHD affects parts of your brain that control your emotions, behaviors, and impulses. That's why you might have issues with paying attention, staying organized, and sitting still. But it can also lead to more serious problems, like trouble with the law.

As many as 1 in 4 people in prison have been diagnosed with ADHD – more than eight times the rate in the general population. The rate of ADHD is five times higher in youth prisons and 10 times higher in adult prisons than it is in people who aren't in prison.

Having ADHD doesn't make you a bad person. It also doesn't mean you're destined to end up in prison, even if you struggle to control your behaviors and emotions. Getting diagnosed and starting on treatment as early as possible could help you avoid legal problems and other issues ADHD causes.

ADHD affects the parts of your brain that help you plan, manage behavior, and control your emotions and impulses. When those areas don't work like they should, it's easier to give in to urges that could get you into a jam – like driving drunk, getting into a fight, or breaking into a neighbor's house.

Certain symptoms of ADHD are more likely to get you into legal trouble than others. Research has linked ADHD symptoms like inattention, impulsive behavior, and a lack of emotional control to the kinds of thoughts that cause people to commit crimes. Hyperactivity doesn't seem to have the same link to legal problems.

ADHD causes a few problem behaviors in the teen years and adulthood that increase the risk of legal consequences:

  • Doing poorly in school, skipping school, or dropping out
  • Hanging out with the "wrong" crowd
  • Being defiant or aggressive
  • Being unemployed
  • Having substance use issues

There is a direct link between these problems and unlawful behavior. If you didn't finish school, you'll have fewer job opportunities. When it’s hard to find work, you may be more likely to get involved in illegal activities like stealing or selling drugs to get money.

ADHD also makes it harder to understand the consequences of your actions. People who do things like steal or sell drugs may not realize what effects these actions could have on others, or that they can lead to punishments like jail time.

When you have ADHD, you're more likely to have other conditions that can also get you into trouble, including disruptive behavior disorders like oppositional defiant disorder (ODD) or conduct disorder (CD).

ODD is the most common behavior disorder that occurs with ADHD. Often ODD starts in childhood, but the symptoms can continue or get worse in adulthood. ADHD may share some of the same genes with ODD and CD.

ODD causes symptoms like anger, hostility, and disobedience. People with ODD don't respect authority figures such as their parents, teachers, and police officers. They do things like lying and stealing that go against society's norms and laws.

Adults with ODD may:

  • Argue a lot
  • Lose their temper often
  • Blame other people for their behaviors or mistakes
  • Refuse to follow the law or do what other adults tell them to do
  • Annoy people on purpose
  • Get easily annoyed themselves
  • Be angry, spiteful, or out for revenge

Conduct disorder (CD) affects about 25% of children and 45% of teens with ADHD. It can lead to antisocial behavior, and sometimes jail time, in adults. People with CD have little to no regard for other people and refuse to follow society's rules.

Having ADHD plus ODD or CD is a dangerous mix that further raises your risk of legal trouble.

ADHD is linked to both minor and serious illegal activities. People with ADHD are more likely to:

  • Get speeding tickets and commit other traffic violations
  • Steal
  • Buy or sell illegal drugs
  • Carry a concealed weapon

People with ADHD tend to get into trouble more than usual, often at an early age. They're two to three times more likely to be arrested, convicted, and put into prison than those without ADHD.

Prison is a risky place when you have ADHD. The criminal justice system often doesn't diagnose or treat people with this condition. That may be why prison inmates with ADHD are more impaired in their day-to-day life than those who aren't in prison.

When you have ADHD, you're more likely to also have a mood disorder. Untreated depression, anxiety, or bipolar disorder in prison leads to a high risk of suicide, especially in the first few weeks after someone goes to jail.

The lack of treatment in prison could lead to more legal problems ahead. People with ADHD who are released from prison are more likely to commit another crime, which is called recidivism.

Being in jail can have ripple effects on the rest of your life. Most people who've been in prison have a hard time finding work when they get out. When you can't work, you can't earn a living wage and you're more likely to end up back in prison.

ADHD symptoms also make it harder to navigate the complex legal system. People who don't have access to the legal aid, services, and treatments they need can easily get stuck in the revolving door of the United States prison system.

Getting the right diagnosis and starting ADHD treatment as soon as possible are the first steps.

Treatment for ADHD usually involves a combination of stimulant medicines, counseling, and lifestyle changes. ODD treatment includes medicine plus behavioral techniques like parent training and family therapy.

Social skills training can be helpful because it teaches you skills you need to prevent situations from getting out of control. In this program, you learn how to:

  • Resolve conflicts
  • Calm yourself down when you get angry or upset
  • Listen and respond in the right way to people in authority

Outside influences are important, too. Kids whose friends have behavior problems are more likely to get into trouble themselves.

Getting the right help is important to prevent the kinds of behaviors that could get you into trouble. See a mental health provider for advice. You might also join a support group to learn some of the techniques that help with impulsivity and other challenging behaviors.