Substance Use and Delinquent Behavior Among Serious Adolescent Offenders

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Data from the Justice Department’s long-term Pathways to Desistance study do not establish a causal link between serious juvenile offending and substance use, but it does suggest a frequent connection between the two.

The study followed more than 1,300 serious juvenile offenders for seven years after their first conviction. Data collection concluded this year, so the majority of the findings have yet to be published, but the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention issued a bulletin on the study’s findings about substance use yesterday.

During the baseline interviews for the Pathways study, which began in 2003, more than a third of males (37 percent) and females (35 percent) in the sample were found to have a diagnosable dependence on drugs and/or alcohol. Many of those who did not have a clinical addiction were using drugs or alcohol in a way that could lead to such: 48 percent of the juveniles said they used more than one drug in the previous six months.

Preliminary analysis of the data suggests that drugs are a better predictor of offending than offending is of drug use. “Substance use and offending in this model are significantly related to each other in the same time period and across time periods,” the bulletin stated. “However, these preliminary analyses demonstrated that substance use predicts offending in the next time period more consistently than offending predicts substance use.”

Pathways data also suggest that treatments for substance abuse did lower drug usage, but only the programs that involved the juvenile’s family were successful in lowering future offending.

Few juveniles actually lived with their families at the time they received drug treatment.  Only 10 percent of the Pathways sample reported receiving drug or alcohol treatment at a community-based program; 56 percent of the Pathways’ juveniles reported receiving substance abuse treatment while at a residential program.

Click here to read the bulletin.