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Principles of Drug Abuse Treatment for Criminal Justice Populations - A Research-Based Guide

What are the unique treatment needs of juveniles in the criminal justice system?

The U.S. Department of Justice’s Office of Justice Programs reports a high rate of drug use among juvenile detainees. One study, for example, found that 77 percent of criminal justice-involved youth reported substance use (mainly marijuana) in the past 6 months, and nearly half of male and female juvenile detainees had a substance use disorder (McClelland et al. 2004a; McClelland et al. 2004b).

Effective treatment of juvenile substance abusers often requires a family-based treatment model.

Arrest rates for drug-related crimes also remain high among juveniles. A recent report showed that of the estimated 2.1 million juvenile arrests in 2008, approximately 10 percent were for drug abuse or underage drinking violations (Puzzanchera 2009).

Juveniles entering the criminal justice system can bring a number of serious problems with them—substance abuse, academic failure, emotional disturbances, physical health issues, family problems, and a history of physical or sexual abuse. Girls make up nearly one-third of juvenile arrests, a high percentage of whom report some form of emotional, physical, or sexual abuse. Effectively addressing these problems requires their gaining access to comprehensive assessment, treatment, case management, and support services appropriate for their age and developmental stage. Assessment is particularly important, because not all adolescents who have used drugs need treatment. For those who do, there are several points in the juvenile justice continuum where treatment has been integrated, including juvenile drug courts, community-based supervision, juvenile detention, and community re-entry.

Families play an important role in the recovery of substance abusing juveniles, but this influence can be either positive or negative. Parental substance abuse or criminal involvement, physical or sexual abuse by family members, and lack of parental involvement or supervision are all risk factors for adolescent substance abuse and delinquent behavior. Thus, the effective treatment of juvenile substance abusers often requires a familybased treatment model that targets family functioning and the increased involvement of family members. Effective adolescent treatment approaches include multisystemic therapy, multidimensional family therapy, and functional family therapy. These interventions show promise in strengthening families and decreasing juvenile substance abuse and delinquent behavior.

Juvenile offenders

Virtually every juvenile offender should be screened for drug abuse and mental disorders, and receive an intervention:

  • Treatment for those who are dependent on alcohol or drugs, or mentally ill.
  • Drug abuse prevention for those who are not.
  • HIV prevention or treatment as needed.

This page was last updated January 2012

What are the unique treatment needs of juveniles in the criminal justice system?

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