Child Crime Prevention & Safety Center

Juvenile Offenders Drugs and Alcohol

Studies have shown that drug and alcohol abuse is pervasive among youthful offenders appearing in juvenile delinquency courts throughout the United States. Rates of alcohol and drug use in minors are higher than it has ever been and minors start using drugs and alcohol younger than ever before. Juvenile delinquency courts throughout the nation have addressed this by implementing programs that focus specifically on substance abuse issues in youthful offenders. These offenders are increasingly given treatment options specifically tailored for young people. Probation officers, therapists, and social workers work with these minors and their families to find appropriate solutions to these issues.

Relationship Between Substance Abuse and Youth Crime

Substantial evidence shows that there is a clear relationship between substance abuse and youth criminal behavior. Studies have shown that youthful offenders have higher rates of substance abuse when compared to minors not in the juvenile justice system. Substance abuse has been linked to increased recidivism rates and a higher likelihood that the offender will have prolonged interactions with the juvenile justice system. Substance abuse has been shown to produce antisocial behavior in juveniles and can affect the areas of the brain that control judgment and decision making. Development in these parts of the brain can be significantly affected and can lead to lifelong consequences. Severe substance abuse has also been shown to be associated with increased rates of criminal behavior and recidivism and escalation to more serious crimes. The younger a minor is when he or she begins using drugs or alcohol, the greater the likelihood is that he or she will be involved in more serious or chronic criminal behavior.

The link between substance abuse and youth crime is extensive. One study found that 25 percent of all minors entering the juvenile justice system were considered “frequent drug users. Another study showed that 47 percent of all minors committed to a detention facility were chemically dependent and less than half of these juveniles ever received any form of substance abuse treatment.

Treatment for Juvenile Offenders

Increasingly, state and local jurisdictions are recognizing that imprisoning addicted minors in locked detention facilities can often be ineffective, can be harmful to the minor’s mental health and development and can actually lead to increased rates of recidivism. Many juvenile court systems have added treated components to help offenders who have substance abuse issues.

Many juvenile delinquency courts, including Los Angeles County, have added juvenile drug courts. These specialty courts are specifically designed to connect addicted minors with intervention and treatment services intended to provide structure. Experts recognize that juveniles have special treatment needs and treatment and 12-step programs used for adult addicts may not be effective for minors. In recent years, juvenile drugs courts have proliferated throughout the county.

Juvenile drug courts are not immune to criticism, and many question their effectiveness and also criticize the lack of parental involvement in the treatment process. Unfortunately, in many cases, the juvenile offender’s parents may also be addicts and it may be necessary to remove the minor from the home or from his or her parents to ensure that the minor is not tempted to use or relapse.

Juvenile delinquency courts have also used family-based intervention as a method to help addicted youth where drug and alcohol abuse is rampant at home. Studies have shown that increased caregiver engagement in treatment leads to better results and a lower likelihood of relapse. A parent’s substance abuse issue is considered a key predictor in whether or not a minor will be successful in treatment or in a juvenile drug court. Some of the most successful intervention programs include Functional Family therapy, in which an in-home therapist works with the minor and his or her family, Multisystemic Therapy, which is considered more intensive that functional family therapy and Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy, which focuses on goal setting, planning, and repetitive progress to alter the thinking patterns of minors with serious addiction issues.