How Drug Courts Can Help Youth Get Into Treatment Instead of Going to Jail

With all the talk about drug use skyrocketing and engagement rates of youths with marijuana as a gateway drug, it may prompt some parents to give up hope if their son or daughter gets into trouble with the law because of substance abuse. Fortunately, cooler heads are starting to prevail, in the form of novel drug courts tailored with youth in mind. In many cases, these special youth drug courts can facilitate the young people getting into treatment – instead of landing in jail. While it’s no panacea and there are no guarantees, the prognosis, according to many experts, is much better for youth who get early treatment than those who don’t. Furthermore, spending time in jail is not all that conducive to learning more positive behavioral habits. What are youth drug courts and how do they work? Let’s take a brief look.

Diversion of Youths from the Juvenile Justice System

A study by the National Center for Mental Health and Juvenile Justice found that most of the youths in the juvenile justice system have a mental health disorder, substance use disorder, or both. What’s even more startling is that nearly 30 percent of these young people are so seriously impaired because of such problems that they cannot function normally. Once young people land in jail, they get little, if any treatment to help them overcome substance use or mental health disorders. According to national data, almost two million teens between 12 and 17 require treatment for substance abuse or dependence, but only one in 10 receives it. Juvenile Treatment Drug Court, one of the initiatives of the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA), helps provide a reasonable and hopeful alternative – by identifying substance-abusing youths who have committed crimes and placing them under strict court monitoring and community supervision. The juvenile treatment drug court offers non-violent offenders the chance to get alcohol and/or drug treatment instead of doing jail time – just as SAMHSA’s adult treatment drug courts do for adult offenders. Now there is an even more intensive diversion program, known as “Reclaiming Futures,” that SAMHAS is collaborating with the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention (OJJDP) at the U. S. Department of Justice. In a recent announcement, Pamela S. Hyde, J.D., SAMHSA Administrator, said that SAMHSA’s new Teen Court Program is helping to ensure that young people are able to stay out of the juvenile justice system in the first place. The Teen Court Program has peers sentencing teen minor, first-time offenders to punishments such as a written apology or doing community service. Part of SAMHSA’s support entails also making sure these teens will get substance use referrals and treatment. A total of $6 million in SAMHSA grants over the next three years (about $200,000 annually) goes to 10 awardees to provide substance abuse treatment services and related recovery support services to youth with substance abuse and/or co-occurring treatment needs involved in a teen court program. The 10 awardees include:

  • Child and Family Charities, Lansing, Michigan
  • Human Services Associates, Inc., Winter Park, Florida
  • Serving Children and Adolescents in Need, Laredo, Texas
  • Pima Prevention Partnership, Tucson, Arizona
  • PAACA Inc., New Bedford, Massachusetts
  • Vermont Village Community Development Corporation, Los Angeles, California
  • THRIVE, Lewiston, Maine
  • City of Jacksonville, Florida
  • Council on Alcoholism and Drug Abuse, Santa Barbara, California
  • Nicasa, NFP, Round Lake, Illinois

The good news is that these programs – Reclaiming Futures and SAMHSA’s Juvenile Treatment Drug Court Programs – work. Evaluations have found increased teen abstinence involving drugs and alcohol, along with reductions in crime and decreases in emotional problems.

Differences Between Adolescents and Adults

But there are major developmental differences between youths and adults. Brain activity, for example, is vastly different in a young person under the age of 25, compared with adults 25 and older. This is especially noticeable in the areas of judgment and impulse control, which are much less developed in young people. Not only are there neurodevelopmental differences, but young people are much less entrenched in criminality and substance abuse than older offenders. This means that there are fewer young offenders who have committed multiple offenses of a serious nature. It is for these two reasons that juvenile drug treatment courts place so much emphasis on family engagement, coordinating with the school system, and creating partnerships with community organizations that can broaden the opportunities available to the youths and their families. Other important aspects of juvenile drug treatment courts include frequent judicial reviews, drug testing, collaborative and interdisciplinary planning between youth, their families, and drug court teams, and sanctions and incentives aimed at modifying bad behavior and reinforcing good behavior. But substance abuse isn’t the only problem many youths face when they land in juvenile treatment drug courts. There are also mental health issues that need to be dealt with. Almost two-thirds of youths in the juvenile justice system have co-occurring disorders. Some 70 percent suffer from mental health disorders, whole more than 60 percent of them also have a substance use disorder.

Hope for Youth/Esperanza para los Jóvenes

Take the example of troubled youths in Monterey County in Northern California. For the most part, they are Latinos who live in areas rife with violence, gangs, criminal behavior, neighborhoods where there’s quick and easy access to alcohol, cocaine, methamphetamine, marijuana and other drugs. Things started to change back in 2010, when the Monterey County Health Department received a three-year Juvenile Treatment Drug Court grant from SAMHSA’s Center for Substance Abuse Treatment (CSAT). The program’s purpose is clear: break the cycle of alcohol and drug use, criminal behavior and spending time in jail. Along with drug and alcohol treatment, the program involves youth meeting regularly with the judge, as well as drug testing.

Reclaiming Futures

Reclaiming Futures, the collaboration of SAMHSA, the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention (OJJDP) at the U. S. Department of Justice, and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation provides youth with severe problems more treatment services, connecting them with adults who care and with positive activities. Thus far, 37 communities across 17 states have used the Reclaiming Futures model. These states include Alaska, California, Colorado, Illinois, Kentucky, Massachusetts, Michigan, Missouri, New Hampshire, New York, North Carolina, Ohio, Oklahoma, Oregon, South Dakota, Texas and Washington. The most recently announced $5.27 million grant award includes three communities and the national program office to implement Reclaiming Futures: Over the next four years, funding support to Lucas County, Ohio ($1.32 million); Forsyth County, North Carolina ($1.23 million); Duval County, Florida ($1.32 million) and the national program office, housed in the Regional Research Institute, School of Social Work at Portland State University ($1.4 million in support over two years). What’s involved in Reclaiming Futures? In essence, there are six stages:

  • Initial screening
  • Initial assessment of young people to identify alcohol or substance use problems
  • Coordination of services across agencies
  • Assisting youth and families with initial contact with services
  • Getting youth and families actively engaged in services
  • Transitioning youth out of service and into long-term support systems, such as community resources and helping relationships

Reclaiming Futures brings together judges, probation officers, treatment providers, families and community members to focus on three common goals for teens in trouble with the law: more treatment, better treatment and community connections that go beyond treatment. Bottom line: Yes, youth who get in trouble with the law need to be accountable for their actions – and to be held accountable for them. But unless they also receive treatment when they have a substance abuse problem that contributed to them getting into trouble in the first place, they’re likely to find themselves winding back in the juvenile court system repeatedly. Juvenile treatment drug courts can help break the cycle of alcohol and drug use, criminal behavior and jail time and help youths have a better chance of staying free of drugs and crime long after they’ve completed treatment and probation.

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