Child Crime Prevention & Safety Center

Juvenile Crime and Substance Abuse

Studies have shown that 80 percent of minors in state juvenile justice systems were under the influence of drugs or alcohol when committing their crimes, test positive for drugs, were arrested for committing an alcohol or drug offense, admitted to having substance abuse or addiction problems or shared some combination of these characteristics. It is estimated that 1.9 to 2.4 million of the minors in the juvenile justice system have substance abuse or addiction issues and only 68,000 receive treatment. Increasingly, juvenile courts are recognizing the role that addiction plays in juvenile crimes and providing treatment options where available and appropriate.

Statistics Regarding Teen Substance Abuse and Criminality

Research has shown a correlation between teen criminality and substance abuse. 44 percent of minors arrested for burglary claimed to commit their crime in order to buy drugs. A third of teens arrested for assault claimed to have been drunk or high when the assault occurred. Chronic violent young offenders are three times as likely to drink alcohol and twice as likely to smoke marijuana.

In addition, 85 percent of juvenile offenders admitted to buying drugs while 55 percent admitted that they sold drugs. Nearly half of minors arrested are under the influence of alcohol at the time of arrest and nearly two-thirds of juvenile offenders acknowledge using one or more substance on a daily basis.

There are a number of reasons that explain the correlation between substance abuse and youth criminality. Even in states that have decriminalized certain drugs, drug use, possession and sale are still illegal for minors. Many young substance users will become involved in selling drugs in order to support their addiction which can lead to serious criminal penalties. Drug addictions can be very expensive which can lead minors to commit thefts, burglaries and robberies. In addition, drugs and alcohol inhibit a person’s judgment and decision-making process. This is even more pronounced in young drug and alcohol users, whose brains are still in the developmental stage. All of this contributes to increased crime rates among juveniles who abuse drugs and alcohol.

Treatment Options for Addicted Youth

Traditionally, minors found guilty of serious juvenile offenses were sent to locked juvenile detention facilities. Many of these minors suffered from substance abuse disorders and received no treatment while in custody. In recent years, juvenile delinquency courts have looked for different options to deal with youth offenders, especially for minors who are serious addicts and for whom treatment would be appropriate.

Treatment for addicted youth can pose its own unique set of challenges. Experts increasingly recognize that juvenile offenders are harmed when removed from their homes and communities and sent to locked juvenile detention facilities. However, many of the juvenile offenders with substance abuse issues come from homes in which drugs and alcohol are widely abused or they regularly associate with other drug users. In these cases, the best option may be to remove the minor while undergoing the first stages of treatment. In addition, efforts may be made to conduct a family intervention and to have the entire family involved in the treatment process.

Juvenile Drug Courts

Many jurisdictions have also started juvenile drug courts modeled after adult drug courts that have been shown to be highly effective. These programs allow for intensive judicial supervision for minors that would not ordinarily be available in the typical juvenile court process.

The juvenile drug court model has six different stages: (1) screening and assessing potential drug court participants to identify substance abuse issues, (2) coordinating services between different agencies, (3) linking minors and their families to appropriate services, (4) ensuring that minors and families are actively engaged in treatment services, (5) transitioning minors out of services and (6) transitioning minors into long-term support and community resources to stay sober. Juvenile drug courts typically rely on frequent court appearances, drug testing and incentives and sanctions intended to reinforce positive behavior and change bad behavior and habits.