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While experimenting with drugs and alcohol was once considered a rite of passage into early adulthood, the average age of onset of alcohol or other substance use of adolescents entering addiction treatment is now below the age of 13i. Of equal concern is a 2011 report from the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Administration (SAMHSA) which revealed that 31.5 percent of adolescent admissions first used their primary substance at age 11 or younger and that among these admissions, the principal source of referral was the justice systemii

The reality is that kids are starting to use drugs and alcohol younger and while their brains are still developing. This dramatically increases the likelihood of addiction and/or involvement in the juvenile justice system. While using substances at any age can lead to addiction, the earlier a person begins to use, the greater the potential for addictioniii. Research has confirmed that substance use has been shown to maintain offending behavior with what has been described as a “drug-crime cyclevi.”

The role of the prosecutor is a critical one. As the gatekeeper to the system, the DA represents the voices of the community in the justice system. That role is amplified when the prosecutor is in juvenile court, where they also must also advance the “needs and best interests” of affected youth. From making decisions on diversion to recommending treatment alternatives and dispositions, prosecutors in juvenile court are perhaps some of the most influential officials in a young person’s life. 
Since many young people experiment with drugs and/or alcohol, not every young person who comes into the juvenile or criminal justice system is on the trajectory toward addiction. But there are many who need early intervention or treatment, and others who are already exhibiting full-blown signs of addiction. For many prosecutors, identifying and distinguishing the signs and symptoms of misuse and dependence were never covered in law school, yet are decisions that they routinely confront.

Fortunately, there have also been some very significant strides over the past several years in tailoring responses in the juvenile justice system. The emergence of evidence-based screening and assessment instruments now allow for early identification of those who may be in need of early intervention or treatment. Prosecutors realize that for most low-level or non-violent offenders with misuse or dependence issues, getting to the core of the drug or alcohol problem will not only help the individual, but will also increase public safety through reduced recidivism. Through the use of diversion and drug courts, prosecutors can then focus their limited resources on cases involving more serious crimes.

With regard to the more serious offenders, prosecutors are often involved in determining conditions of probation or detention. Since research shows that more severe substance use is associated with this population, DA’s and other justice officials should ensure that treatment and recovery support are available for offenders with identified alcohol or drug dependenciesv. While detention is often utilized with regard to serious offenders, preliminary reports from pilot projects involving intensive probation supervision, with swift and certain sanctions for violations, are showing promising outcomes as wellvi.  
For those youth who have addiction issues, relapse is common. More important than what happens in court and/or treatment may be what happens afterwards. Recovery happens in the community and attention must be paid to issues surrounding this support, including 12-step and other peer-based support groups. Since families represent an important aspect of treatment and recovery, they must also be included in developing plans to help young people recover.

Science has confirmed that addiction is a preventable, yet progressive disease and must be treated as such. Unlike other diseases, however, it can drive juvenile offending, placing both the juvenile and the community at risk. Beginning with prevention efforts and continuing with diversion, community-based practices, drug courts, probation and other innovative strategies, prosecutors must work together with justice system stakeholders and families to make an impact that truly brings about lasting and positive changes for these young people and their communities. No longer are these approaches considered “soft on crime” – they are “smart on crime.”

Susan Broderick is Assistant Research Professor, Georgetown University’s Public Policy Institute and Project Director, Center for Juvenile Justice Reform.

i William L. White, Arthur C. Evans, Jr., Sadé Ali, Ijeoma Achara-Abrahams, Joan King (2009) The Recovery Revolution: Will it include children, adolescents, and transition age youth? Available at: Last accessed: Oct. 14, 2011.
ii The TEDS Report: Substance Abuse Treatment Admissions Aged 12 to 14. (May, 3, 2011) Center for Behavioral Health Statistics and Quality, Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA).
iii Adapted from National Institute on Drug Abuse. Accessed 5/4/2011.
iv L. Chassin, et al. / Journal of Substance Abuse Treatment 36 (2009)
v S.J.Tripodi, K. Bender / Journal of Criminal Justice 39 (2011)
vi Project Safe, Maricopa County, Arizona (2012)

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