Size of Drug Problem in Juvenile Justice Depends on Where You Look

Researchers investigating the prevalence of substance abuse problems among youthful offenders find that the rate of abuse varies according to where they look. Drug behaviors by offenders at the earliest stages of justice involvement are not that different from drug abuse rates in the general population, but the problem becomes more common as studies look more deeply into the juvenile justice process.

McReynolds et al. (2008), for example, recently examined the prevalence of drug disorders among young offenders referred by police to a community-based assessment center in Florida.  Juvenile assessment centers in Florida typically handle youth with few prior police contacts and those charged with non-serious offenses. The study showed that just 11 percent of these youth had detectable substance use disorders. In other words, their rate of drug abuse was not that different from teenagers in general.

On the other hand, Wasserman and her colleagues (2005) measured the prevalence of drug use disorders among a sample of youth that had moved past police intake and into juvenile probation. That study detected drug use disorders in 26 percent of youth.

When researchers look even deeper into the justice system, the number of youth with substance abuse disorders grows, from 37 percent among non-incarcerated youth under court supervision, to 43 percent among youth in out-of-home placement, and 49 percent among youth held in one of the largest secure detention facilities in the country -- the juvenile detention center in Chicago, Illinois.

Drug-involved youth are increasingly common the farther we look into the juvenile justice process (i.e., arrested, charged, convicted, incarcerated). Drug-abusing youth essentially accumulate in the "deep end" of the system as the population of youthful offenders moves through the legal process.

What does this mean? Do illegal drugs cause youth to commit more serious offenses which results in more serious handling by the justice system? Or, does the fact of youth drug use prompt judges and other officials to see youth differently and to handle their cases more strictly regardless of the particular offenses involved?
Our answers to these questions may determine how we respond to youthful offenders and the strategies we use to prevent and reduce juvenile crime.
[Editor's Note: The chart and sources below have been adjusted to display correctly in Internet Explorer. Users of other browsers may need to scroll down to see the list of sources and leave comments.]

Prevalence of substance abuse in various juvenile populations
(1). Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (2007). National Survey on Drug Use and Health. Rockville, MD: Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration.
 (2). McReynolds, Larkin S., Gail A. Wasserman, Robert E. DeComo, Reni John, Joseph M. Keating, and Scott Nolen (2008). Psychiatric disorder in a juvenile assessment center. Crime &; Delinquency, 54(2): 313-334.
 (3). Wasserman, Gail A., Larkin S. McReynolds, Susan J. Ko, Laura M. Katz, and Jennifer R. Carpenter (2005). Gender Differences in Psychiatric Disorders at Juvenile Probation Intake. American Journal of Public Health, 95(1): 131-137.
 (4). Aarons, Gregory A., Sandra A. Brown, Richard L. Hough, Ann F. Garland, and Patricia A. Wood (2001). Prevalence of Adolescent Substance Use Disorders across Five Sectors of Care. Journal of the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, 40(4): 419-26.
(5). Domalanta, D.D., M.L. Risser, R.E.Roberts, J.M.H. Risser (2003). Prevalence of Depression and Other Psychiatric Disorders Among Incarcerated Youths. Journal of the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, 42(4): 477-484.
 (6). Teplin, Linda A., Karen M. Abram, Gary M. McClelland, Mina K. Dulcan, and Amy A. Mericle (2002). Psychiatric Disorders in Youth in Juvenile Detention. Archives of General Psychiatry, 59(Dec): 1133-1143.

Updated: February 08 2018