Most Effective Juvenile Justice Policy? Practitioners Say It’s Drug Treatment

by Jeffrey A. Butts Ph.D.

What works in juvenile justice? That’s always a big question. After every youth violence tragedy, government officials are asked what they intend to do about teen crime. Academics and experts are asked how to reduce delinquency, how to lower recidivism, and which programs and policies are most effective? When we asked juvenile justice practitioners these questions in a recent study, their answer was substance abuse treatment.

As one of those "experts" on youth crime, I’m often asked to comment on juvenile justice policy. The question I hear the most frequently is, of course, "should we send more youth to criminal (adult) court?" (By the way, the answer is "no" except for severe violence. In most cases it is actually counter-productive).

However, there are many more important policy questions. Criminal court transfer is just one issue, and it affects relatively few youth. What about all the other policies and practices used in juvenile justice? What about curfew laws, detention alternatives, and restorative justice? Which of these are most effective?

Unfortunately, the most common answer to these questions is "we don’t know yet." There are surprisingly few studies on the impact and effectiveness of juvenile justice policies. It is expensive and complicated to carry out good evaluation studies in the politicized and chaotic environment of juvenile justice. Thus, we really don’t have many good answers— and we never will without new investments in research.

But, aren’t there other ways to answer at least some of these questions? Instead of waiting for new evaluation research, couldn’t we just ask people in the best position to know what works in juvenile justice. For example, couldn’t we ask juvenile court judges and prosecutors what they see as the best ideas in juvenile crime policy?

That’s just what we did recently. I collaborated with several former colleagues at the Urban Institute in a study that asked juvenile justice professionals in the 300 largest U.S. counties to assess the relative value of various policies and practices used to combat juvenile crime. We surveyed a representative sample of judges, prosecutors, defense attorneys, and court administrators. More than 500 professionals answered a battery of questions about which policies they believed to be most effective and why.

Each policy or practice was assessed on several dimensions, including: 1) its effectiveness in reducing overall crime, 2) its impact on individual offenders; 3) its appropriateness as a punishment; 4) its basic fairness; 5) its efficiency, and 6) whether it was consistent with the traditional mission of the juvenile court.

News Flash: It turns out that when you ask the people who work in the juvenile justice system what is the best way to address youth crime, their top answer is effective substance abuse treatment.

Although opinions varied (e.g., prosecutors always favored criminal court transfer more than other groups), when we looked across all four professional groups and assessed their total reactions to a wide range of ideas and practices, the one that got top marks was substance abuse treatment.

In fact, the most highly ranked policies were:
  1. Substance abuse treatment
  2. Sex offender treatment
  3. Mental health treatment
  4. Reentry services and planning
  5. Coordination with social services

Which policies received the lowest rankings? Practitioners were least impressed with policies to reduce court confidentiality, to transfer juveniles to criminal court, juvenile curfews, and parental accountability laws (i.e., prosecuting parents for the behavior of their children). Of course, these ineffective policies are still very popular with elected officials and media commentators.

Maybe our opinion of the juvenile justice system depends on whether we are looking at it from the inside or the outside.

Watch for our forthcoming article about the Urban Institute survey:

Mears, Daniel P., Tracey L. Shollenberger, Janeen B. Willison, Colleen Owens, and Jeffrey A. Butts (forthcoming, 2009). Practitioner views of priorities, policies, and practices in juvenile justice. Crime and Delinquency. A journal from Sage Publications.

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15 thoughts on “Most Effective Juvenile Justice Policy? Practitioners Say It’s Drug Treatment

  1. Stephanie

    I totally agree – especially in the cases where j=kids have underlying issues ie: mental health issues, raised in a drug environment.. etc – all kids are treated the same in the system – and some need different treatment than others. Throwing counseling at them and punishing them repeatedly for long periods of time leads to worse things like – loss of hope, depression, helplessness… it’s really sad what happens to these kids. They break their spirit – and once that’s done, you’ve lost your best advocate. Throwing all of the “bad kids” together (in work groups, special schools, group therapy) is also one of the reason none of these kids ever get out of the system.

  2. Heather

    Until all of the branches of juvenile justice can agree on the policies that are effective it will always be the “merry go round effect”. If you take an individual and you do NOT listen to them due to the fact that they are the “juvenile in question” you will never figure out what works.

    Here is an example; A young girl is using drugs, lashing out at authority, and appears to be angry at everyone.
    Here are the steps that were taken,
    (a)She needs to be in substance abuse counseling!
    (b) She needs counseling! All types of it too, lets send 4 or 5 counselors at her and see if at least one can get through!
    (c)Discipline Discipline Discipline by parents!

    What solved this young woman’s problems? Do we know? Probably not because we threw every trick in the book at her. Was it what we did as a justice system or was it something different entirely?

    Until there can be a one on one evaluation of a troubled teen by someone who they can relate to there will always be the struggle of “What works?”
    It does not need to be extensive expensive studies by “experts” (who are they exactly?), it is, in my opinion, trial and error when dealing with teens. Whether or not we will come to accept this or just toss up our hands and say “well we tried, they just didn’t want to change” will be up to us to figure out before the ratio of “cured teens” continues to decline at a steady pace.

  3. Sarah

    Whatever the merits or demerits of the current juvenile justice system, its codes of procedure and criminal law it must be conceded that a “one fits all” system that applies these basics to the immature pre-adolescent 10 year old , in the same manner as with the mature 17-year-old is an affront to common sense as well as all national and international experience and evidence-based practice.

  4. OliviaB.

    The comments here have definitely given me more of an insight into the situation. I thought it was an easy solve: focus on substance abuse treatment. But it’s more complicated than that. Sure, I wouldn’t allocate all of the efforts towards it, leaving the others neglected, but there’s a reason why it’s considered top priority across the board. But I’m also not completely sold with getting information more out of the kids than the doctors. Many kids either don’t know themselves or they don’t want to talk about it. Now I’m no criminal defense lawyer, and I don’t know enough about the jj system, but it seems that there’s something to be said about everyone’s efforts in figuring out a way to help all of these kids while giving special attention to those with various degrees of substance abuse issues. If you do this while they’re still young, perhaps it will stick with them when they’re adults.

    Have this research find and all the adjacent suggestions been given to decision makers who could use this insight to improve the system/program?

  5. Angie

    I am pleasantly “not surprised” by the top responses. I am working with juvenile justice in a state that is attempting to implement the “Missouri Model” which provides an incredible continuum of care and operates with amazing collaboration between DYS and the courts. So, I wonder if in addition to the coordination with Social Services – that having more flexibility and coordination between the secure-care staff, the field, and the courts came up in Mears et al. study.

  6. Angie

    I also meant to comment on the difficulties in pursuing evaluation studies. The cost of a good study is certainly one of the biggest barriers I experience in my work, but we also have to have approval by our institutional review board – and incarcerated youth are a very vulnerable population to research. My third big barrier to evaluation research is simply retrieving/obtaining outcome data since I must request information (as a contract program) from the state agency. We will continue to do what we can to collect data and analyze “in-house” as we pursue avenues of funding, etc. I wonder if anyone has any suggestions/comments?

  7. Benjamin Chambers

    Hi Angie – it’ll be interesting to see what Jeff has to say, when he gets a moment. On the topic of evaluation, you’ve listed a number of issues common to many, I’m sure.

    Perhaps you’ve already gone down this road, but it seems to me that a coordinated approach — as with Reclaiming Futures — between contract providers (a category it sounds like you fall into), the judiciary, the community, and juvenile probation can do amazing things to focus everyone on key measures and get data flowing between partners. That sort of change is best driven by a judge, especially as a convener to get parties to the table, but other parties can certainly initiate. It’s been my experience that when people realize how much they *don’t* know about the system — or that not everyone has access to the data they do — they get more interested in facilitating evaluations and data tracking/sharing.

  8. Babette

    Talk to those youth who have been in detention. They will help give you answers, not doctors. Parents need to get more involved with their children and talk about drugs and crime because they do go together. Parents pick your child’s friends even if it is a relative. Know where you children are as much as you can and don’t ever think your child won’t do the drugs that lead to the crimes. I think when children are committing crimes they are already into drugs and they are crying out for help, not detention. The folks who are selling the drugs to our children should be in jail for a very long time. Children, teens, adults, should be listening to those who know, who have been there and can talk to them from experience. When we as parents fail, the best teaching should come from those who really know. Talk to your children and love them know matter what.

  9. Jeff Butts

    I agree with a prior comment that human subjects protections make it very hard to do research in justice settings, but we just have to overcome those obstacles.
    I think it is also important to remember that the survey described in this post did not assess jj practices in terms of how many youth they affect. It measured practitioner confidence.
    Obviously, sex offender treatment is critical for the youth involved, and our survey results confirmed its importance. Still, it would be unreasonable to place sex offender treatment second on a list of all methods for preventing juvenile crime.
    Similarly, substance abuse treatment received strong marks in our survey, but this does not mean it will cure all forms of youth crime. As I showed in a previous post, most youth in the juvenile justice system do not have drug problems and they do not need drug treatment. They need more conventional help, including strong relationships with pro-social peers and adults, educational and vocational support, work experience, and opportunities for civic engagement, physical activity, and self-expression.
    Substance abuse treatment is the key component of intervention for some youth (maybe 10%) and an important part of intervention for many youth (up to 50%), but it can never be the primary answer for all youth.

  10. Jeff Butts

    Good points. In fact, your observations closely align with my own views. I think that treatment could indeed be over used in many jurisdictions… if by “treatment” you mean rigid, clinical treatment protocols focused on dependency and addiction.
    Most drug-involved youth in the justice system (probably 90%) are not dependent and they could be actually harmed by an overly coercive and stigmatizing experience in the juvenile justice system.
    However, if “treatment” includes a broader range of pro-social activities and positive engagement with their families, schools, and communities, then I would argue that a lot more youth in the justice system could benefit from “treatment.”

  11. John Kelly

    Jeff and Ben,

    Great posting here. Jeff, I’m curious how the findings of this survey jive with your personal view on what is most effective (remember your white paper saying that treatment is probably too often relied upon instead of basic youth development).

    Also, something I’ve always wanted been curious about…are we sending too many juveniles who USE drugs but are NOT dependent on them to substance abuse treatment? Because substance abuse isn’t necessarily appropriate for a teen just because his charge involves drugs or he had some in his system at point of arrest…right?

    JK (the other juvenile justice blogger)

  12. Angie

    I whole-heartedly agree with John Kelly and Jeff’s comments! In my state, we screen EVERY youth who enters secure-cure for substance abuse and mental health issues. We have a very high rate of substance use disorders, BUT not all of them meet criteria for dependence. The program I developed relies heavily on the Cannabis Youth Treatment series – Motivational Enhancement and CBT therapies as our core philosophies. We do not use 12-Steps or disease-concept approaches except on an individual basis with youth who are interested (or may have previous experience with AA/NA). Our program focuses on moving youth through the stages of change, my staff find it almost impossible to address “only” substance abuse issues. We (the treatment counselors) work as a team with the faciliy level staff who are there to teach skills and develop a reintegration plan (and arguably there to instill hope and a desire for change!). So, as Jeff had mentioned, if “treatment” includes a broader range of pro-social activities and positive engagement with their families, schools, and communities, then I would argue that a lot more youth in the justice system could benefit from “treatment.”

  13. Kallie

    Drug treatment does sound like the best real solution and social services need to adjust to that. Juvenile justice? Do we even know what that means? Are teens really responsible for their acts or they are victims or products of a wrong social system? I work at Cliffside rehab center and I met such teens, their “crimes” are a desperate cry for help.

  14. Jenny Dovan

    Kallie, I agree with you that teens in these situations are looking for help and that drug treatment does sound like a real solution. I work with troubled teens as a counselor and while I may be partial, I feel good trusted counseling could also benefit these kids.

    Mental Health Counselor


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