Despite a growing awareness of the unique needs of psychiatric patients with co-occurring substance abuse and dependence disorders (i.e. dual diagnosis), there is a dearth of research investigating the prevalence of dual diagnosis in forensic psychiatric populations. Similarly, little work has been done to determine the implications of dual diagnosis for forensic psychiatric patients. Patients at the Thomas Embling Hospital in Victoria, Australia, were assessed to determine the prevalence of substance abuse disorders and mental illnesses within this population. Results reveal that the majority of patients (approximately 74%) have a lifetime substance abuse or dependence disorder. Information was collected concerning patients' criminal histories and the Level of Service Inventory, Revised, was completed for each patient who participated. Results suggest that patients with both major mental illnesses and substance abuse disorders have more extensive criminal histories and demonstrate a higher level of risks and needs when compared with patients with major mental illness alone. The implications for the development and delivery of effective forensic mental health services that address both co-occurring disorders are also discussed. Copyright © 2004 John Wiley & Sons, Ltd.