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National Assembly: Drugs, Alcohol Abuse,
and the Criminal Offender
Thursday, December 9, 1999

Opening Remarks

Shay Bilchik, Administrator
Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention
Office of Justice Programs
U.S. Department of Justice
Washington, D.C.

Summary of Proceedings

Successful work with substance-abusing juvenile offenders requires a recognition that young people's needs are different from those of adults, and that a public health perspective is most appropriate for developing an effective set of programs, said Shay Bilchik, Administrator of the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention (OJJDP). Efforts with children and youth must be comprehensive, grounded in prevention, and include appropriate assessment, accountability measures, and aftercare services.

The nation's first juvenile court was created more than a century ago in recognition of the special needs of juveniles. "[Young people] aren't miniature adults, with their cognition fully formed, their decisions wholly rational," Bilchik said. "Youth have distinct developmental needs requiring supervision and guidance to meet those needs and achieve their full potential as adults." Service providers for juveniles must focus on the special developmental needs of young people, on how behavior patterns are formed, on their values, and on the risk factors that often indicate future problems.

Credible evidence shows that while juvenile drug use is declining, it remains a serious national issue. Moreover, Bilchik noted, "The many individual crises that confront our youth are related and are part of a larger common problem. Juvenile delinquency, drug use, gang membership, gun possession, homicide, and violence form a nexus of issues often present among the same youth. We have a rich description of the developmental pathways that our children follow into delinquency and into more serious offending," said Bilchik, citing the following OJJDP statistics:

  • Youth involved with drugs are likely to be engaged in other delinquent behaviors. For example, compared with youth not using marijuana, youth who are active marijuana users are much more likely to have sold the drug (24 percent versus 1 percent), carried a gun (12 percent versus 2 percent) or become involved in gang life (14 percent versus 2 percent).
  • About half of incarcerated youth report being under the influence of drugs or alcohol when they committed the crime for which they were institutionalized.
  • One in 4 youth possessing illegal firearms committed a gun-related crime, and 4 in 10 of those youths used drugs while committing these crimes.

Since youth behaviors are well documented, we can understand the positive factors that "protect" them and respond to the negative or risk factors that lead to destructive and delinquent behavior. "We know, for example, that family dysfunction, poor peer relations, and the lack of positive opportunities are risk factors that lead to drug use and delinquency for our children," he said. Research shows that:

  • Adolescents whose parents exhibit criminal behavior are about twice as likely to be involved in serious delinquent behavior as are youth whose parents are not involved in similar behaviors.
  • Adolescents with delinquent peers are about 10 times more likely to be involved in serious delinquency than are youth whose peers do not exhibit delinquent behavior.
  • When both of these problems are present in an adolescent's life, he or she is 17 times more likely to be involved in serious delinquent behavior.

Conversely, Bilchik said, certain positive influences or "protective" factors can offset negative influences. Protective factors include positive peer and family relationships, involvement in school and community activities, volunteer work, and so on. The most effective avenue to reducing juvenile substance abuse and crime lies in encouraging the development of these positive, protective factors both inside and outside the juvenile justice system.

Positive prevention efforts are particularly important and the most cost-effective means of addressing the problem. These involve everything from prenatal care and family strengthening to improved schools and opportunities for young people. Positive growth and development must start with positive family relationships, which provide the important source of supervision and guidance for youth and help alleviate the burdens of adolescence.

Communities must be involved actively in work that is not only anti-drug but "pro-youth." "Each of us who care about making our communities safe is responsible for insuring positive opportunities for youth to develop," he said. "The results we have seen from community programs like mentoring, after-school programs, conflict resolution training, youth leadership, job training, employment, and the arts are testaments to this fact. Basically, kids need something to say yes to ... something they value that they would lose if they engaged in delinquent behavior."

OJJDP and the Office of National Drug Control Policy (ONDCP) jointly are supporting coalitions in 215 communities that bring together various sectors to develop and implement community prevention programs. In FY 2000, $30 million will be made available to expand community coalition programming to nearly 100 additional communities.

Community collaboratives can function as a critical link to the work of the juvenile and criminal justice systems by providing aftercare programs for young people after they leave the criminal justice system. These collaboratives are needed to develop the broad-based community support required for programs to be effective.

Thorough assessment mechanisms also are needed, Bilchik said. They should occur at the first sign of trouble in order to determine the youth's potential risk to the community and the most effective means of addressing the problems. Young people give plenty of warning signs when they start heading into risky behaviors. On average, the criminal justice system usually knows about these youths for at least seven years before they become serious offenders and youths. However, young people typically are involved in active delinquency for about two years before their first referral for intervention of any kind.

"Without any objective criteria to assist in making smart decisions about our kids, we also are wasting our resources," Bilchik said. He spoke of potentially wasted resources on the "front end," with services that may be applied inappropriately or duplicated across systems, or on the "back end," "when juveniles have gone too far down that road for us to maximize our chances of being effective with them."

In addition to prevention and assessment, the court system needs to move quickly and appropriately when a young person is in trouble. Graduated sanctions and placement options are needed for young offenders. Drug courts, for example, use a wide range of options, such as community service, restitution, diversion, mental health and substance abuse treatment, home detention, electronic monitoring and group homes, and incarceration.

Aftercare programs also are important after juveniles leave residential facilities. "It's too easy to say the child benefited from treatment and send them home, back into the same environment from which they came, which wasn't necessarily a positive one," Bilchik said. "The day they enter our institutions, we have to start thinking about the support systems they'll need when they leave our institutions and work with issues around school, family and peers. Those are the domains to which these young people will return and with which they will have to deal, even if they've improved in treatment." These aftercare programs must establish a solid foundation for accountability-based programming when the young person returns to the community.

The key to effectiveness in all these programs is a comprehensive approach that balances swift and consistent accountability measures with appropriate, individualized treatment programming, Bilchik said. "We can take what we've learned about young people, effective programs, systems change, and move this knowledge and practice to a scale never before achieved."


Last Updated: March 4, 2002

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