Substance Abuse Among Youthful Offenders

Consistent and substantial evidence exists that supports the relationship between substance abuse and criminal behaviors in youth.[1] Youthful offenders demonstrate elevated rates of substance abuse in comparison to non-offending youth. [2] Substance abuse often increases recidivism and reflects a deeper involvement in the juvenile justice system.[3] Drug and alcohol use also increases the likelihood that a youthful offender will have prolonged interaction with the juvenile justice system. [4] In addition, substance abuse produces antisocial behavior in youth.[5] Severe substance abuse is associated with increased rates of offending and more serious offenses.[6] Furthermore, the younger the child is at the onset of substance use usually reflects greater probabilities for severe and chronic offending.[7]

For example, in 2010, the Texas Juvenile Probation Commission found that twenty-five percent of all the juveniles referred were “frequent drug users.”[8] In 2009, forty-seven percent of children committed to the Texas Youth Commission were chemically dependent.[9] Less than half of these chemically dependent children received any type of substance abuse treatment. [10] The development of effective substance abuse treatment programs for juvenile offenders should be considered a “vital component” for overall rehabilitation efforts.[11]

Many jurisdictions have realized the prevalence of substance abuse among their youthful offenders and have taken action.  In response, juvenile drug courts have become popular.[12] These specialty courts are designed to provide various services in order to promote intervention, treatment, and structure.[13] Despite mixed results of their effectiveness, juvenile drug courts have proliferated.[14] Some criticisms of juvenile drug courts include the lack of parental involvement in the treatment process.[15] Moreover, since every juvenile drug court is unique, many have yet to adopt and integrate comprehensive evidence-based substance abuse treatment programs.[16]

Juvenile drug courts that have successfully reduced recidivism of criminal behavior and substance abuse have utilized family-based intervention in order to improve caregiver supervision.[17] Increasing caregiver engagement in the treatment services creates better outcomes.[18] In the reverse, the caregiver’s substance abuse problem is considered a “key predictor” for a child’s non-responsive outcome to the juvenile drug court’s attempted interventions.[19] Success is also dependent on the juvenile drug court’s use of evidence-based substance abuse treatment programs designed specifically for youth.[20] Interventions that yield the most positive results are behavioral-oriented and include services for both the offending youth and their adult caregivers.[21] Some of the most successful intervention programs include Functional Family Therapy (FFT), Multisystemic Therapy (MST), and Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy (CBT).[22]

Functional Family Therapy (FFT) is considered highly cost effective.[23] This program provides an in-home therapist to work closely with the youthful offenders and their family.[24] FFT’s primary goals are to engage and motivate parents.[25] The program focuses on improving family member interactions by teaching the entire family beneficial problem solving skills, enhancing emotional connections, and equipping caregivers with the skills necessary to provide appropriate structure for their children.[26]

Another successful program is Multisystemic Therapy (MST).[27] MST provides similar services as Functional Family Therapy (FFT).[28] In addition, this program provides assistance in maintaining communication and working relationships with other systems that the child may be involved in such as foster care and school.[29] MST is a more intensive and expensive program than FFT, because it involves more comprehensive services.[30] Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) has also been successful in treating youth who struggle with substance abuse.  CBT seeks intervention through promoting structured goal setting, planning, and repetitive practice.[31] This program’s primary goal is to alter the child’s thinking processes.[32]

Across the different successful intervention programs, one constant exists.  It is evident that the role of family is vital to the child’s success.[33] Programs that emphasize family interactions have proven to be more successful.[34] Caregiver involvement in the youth’s recovery process has been established as necessary throughout adolescent substance abuse treatment literature.[35] For the child to maintain long-term positive results, changes must be made to the primary home environment.[36] Caregivers must be provided the skills necessary to provide adequate supervision, support, and boundaries for the children under their care.

Substance-abusing children in the juvenile justice system usually exhibit a multitude of psychosocial and clinical problems.[37] These various problems can make youthful offenders a challenging subset to treat.[38] Many of these children come from economically disadvantaged homes.[39] Moreover, it is common for these children to struggle with a co-occurring psychiatric disorder.[40] Though treating youthful offenders for substance abuse can be challenging, the return on society’s investment is worth the effort.  Investing in the rehabilitation of youthful offenders has been proven to be cost-effective.[41] Successful intervention programs will pay for themselves in the long term, because successfully rehabilitating a youthful offender will preserve precious public resources that would have otherwise been consumed by further law enforcement interactions and correctional costs.[42] Community based programs seem to be the most ideal, since they can be utilized to prevent the need for a residential placement.[43] It is important for communities to realize that failing to effectively intervene early in the lives of youthful offenders will most likely lead to a lifetime of costs associated with the offender’s recidivism.

[1]Stephen Tripodi and Kimberly Bender, Substance Abuse Treatment for Juvenile Offenders: A Review of Quasi-Experimental and Experimental Research, 39 J. Crim. Just. 246, 247 (2011) [hereinafter Tripodi].

[2] Id. at 251; Joan Neff and Dennis Waite, Male Versus Female Substance Abuse Patterns Among Incarcerated Juvenile Offenders: Comparing Strain and Social Learning Variables, 24 Just. Q. 106, 107 (March 2007) (“A number of studies have documented a link between substance use and delinquency.”); Craig Henderson et. al., Program Use of Effective Drug Abuse Treatment Practices for Juvenile Offenders, 32 J. Subst. Abuse Treat.  279,  279 (2007) [hereinafter Henderson] (“It has been estimated that over sixty percent of youths involved with the juvenile justice system need treatment for substance abuse problems.”); Douglas Young, Richard Dembo, & Craig Henderson, A National Survey of Substance Abuse Treatment for Juvenile Offenders, 32 J. Subst. Abuse Treat. 255, 256 (April 2007) [hereinafter Young] (“A strong positive association between youths’ drug use and crime has been well established… Delinquent youths tend to be more drug involved than non-delinquent youths.”).

[3]Tripodi, supra note 1, at 251; Henderson, supra note 2, at 279 (“Left untreated, substance-abusing adolescents often show increasingly severe substance abuse and criminal activity over time.”).

[4] Young, supra note 2, at 255.

[5] Id.

[6] Id.; Tripodi, supra note 1, at 247.

[7] Young, supra note 2, at 255.

[8]Chris Cunico et. al., Protect Youth and Communities By Implementing Responsible Juvenile Justice Strategies Throughout Texas, 11 (Texas Criminal Justice Coalition, 2011) [hereinafter Cunico].

[9] Id. at 22.

[10] Id.; Tripodi, supra note 1, at 247.

[11]Tripodi, supra note 1, at 247 (“Incarcerated adolescents are approximately three times more likely to have substance abuse problems… than non-incarcerated adolescents and approximately fifty percent of incarcerated adolescents report using… when committing the act for which they were arrested.”).

[12]Scott Henggeler et. al., Enhancing the Effectiveness of Juvenile Drug Courts by Integrating Evidence-Based Practices, 80 J. Consulting & Clinical Psychology 264, 264 (2012) [hereinafter Henggeler].

[13] Drug Courts, U.S. Department of Justice, Office of Justice Programs 1 (May 2012), available at:

[14]Henggeler, supra note 12, at 264.

[15] Id.

[16] Id.

[17] Id.

[18] Id. at 265.

[19] Id.

[20] Id.

[21]Tripodi, supra note 1, at 247; Henderson, supra note 2, at 280 (“Family-based, multiple system-oriented treatments, have… demonstrated success.”).

[22]Tripodi, supra note 1, at 247; Crime and Public Policy, 103 (James Wilson & Joan Petersilia, ed., Oxford University Press 2011) [hereinafter Crime & Public Policy].

[23] Id.; Cunico, supra note 8, at 24 (“In 2010, the Texas Youth Commission implemented a pilot program called Functional Family Therapy (FFT), an evidence-based initiative which targets the needs of youth with substance abuse issues, among other needs.”).

[24] Crime & Public Policy, supra note 22, at 107.

[25] Id. at 103.

[26] Id. at 121-22.

[27] Id. at 108.

[28] Id.

[29] Id.

[30] Id. at 122.

[31] Id. at 109.

[32] Id. at 123.

[33]Tripodi, supra note 1, at 251.

[34] Crime & Public Policy, supra note 22, at 121.

[35]Henggeler, supra note 12, at 264.

[36]Tripodi, supra note 1, at 251.

[37]Henggeler, supra note 12, at 273.

[38] Id.

[39] Id.

[40] Id.; Tripodi, supra note 1, at 246.

[41] Crime & Public Policy, supra note 22, at 101.

[42] Id.

[43] Id. at 104.

Shiloh Carter

About Shiloh Carter

Shiloh Carter is working as a Graduate Fellow for the Center for Children, Law, & Policy. Prior to law school, Shiloh received her bachelor degree in Communications Sciences and Disorders from the University of Texas. As an undergraduate, she worked with children with special needs. During law school, Shiloh worked as a scholar for the Center for Children, Law, & Policy and completed internships with Kids In Need of a Defense (KIND) and the Crimes Against Children Section of the Galveston County District Attorney's Office. In addition, Shiloh volunteers with Child Advocates as a court appointed special advocate and has completed four cases. She has received numerous awards for her dedication to public interest work including the Center for Children, Law, & Policy Napoleon Beazley Defender Award 2013, the University of Houston Law Center Distinguished Service Award 2013, the Ann Dinsmore Forman Memorial Child Advocacy Award 2012, and the Robert Allen Memorial Student Excellence Award 2012.

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