Kleptomania as a Legal Defense

Legal defenses ­for shoplifting by claiming kleptomania are difficult. First, a defense lawyer must argue that the accused stole for no financial gain, revenge, anger or dare. Next, a rigorous psychiatric evaluation must be performed, and the criteria to meet an actual diagnosis are strict. Even if kleptomania is diagnosed, the U.S. Justice Department excludes it (along with pyromania and other impulse control disorders) from possible defense, according to the Americans with Disabilities Act. It basically comes down to the question of the individual's responsibility for his or her actions versus "insanity" -- this issue has long been tossed around in the judiciary and psychiatric worlds.

Kleptomania Characteristics

With the diagnosis criteria in mind, kleptomania as a true condition occurs in a rather small percentage of the population. While no true estimate of the general population is available, scientists estimate that kleptomania occurs in 5 to 10 percent of psychiatric patients [source: Grant].

Kleptomania tends to occur in women more than in men. However, there may be some gender bias in this finding because women who steal tend to get psychiatric evaluations, while men who steal tend to go to prison [source: Grant]. Similarly, there doesn't appear to be any one social group in which kleptomania is rampant

Kleptomania usually begins in the teens or 20s. By the time patients present themselves to psychiatrists, women are usually in their mid- to late 30s, while men are in their 50s. There have been reports of kleptomaniacs in their late 70s. We don't know if kleptomania has a genetic component, but some studies suggest that kleptomaniacs have parents or close relatives with substance abuse problems, obsessive-compulsive disorder and/or mood disorders.

Kleptomaniacs usually steal items that they could otherwise afford (like shampoo, clothing and sunglasses). They don't go into stores with the intent to steal, but they become tense with the prospect of theft and might not steal when there is a high probability of getting caught. The theft itself generally relieves the tension, but it leads to intense feelings of guilt, embarrassment, anxiety and remorse. Kleptomaniacs may hoard the stolen items, give them away, dispose of them or clandestinely return them.

Often, the stealing behavior of kleptomania occurs along with other psychological disorders, like obsessive-compulsive, personality and mood disorders. This observation has led some psychiatrists to question whether kleptomania is indeed a true psychological disorder or a manifestation of some other psychological disorder. Generally, kleptomania has been classed with other impulse control disorders, such as pathological gambling, pyromania and trichotillomania (chronic hair-pulling). Impulse control disorders are those where the individuals cannot resist the impulse to commit some behavior, criminal or otherwise. The addictive nature of kleptomania, as well as other impulse control disorders, has provided some insights for possible causes and treatments.