Commentary: Getting Smart on Juvenile Offending and Substance Use Issues – The Role of the Prosecutor

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. She also is a former prosecutor and represent prosecutors involved with the MacArthur Foundation’s Models for Change Initiative.

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)

5 Responses to Commentary: Getting Smart on Juvenile Offending and Substance Use Issues – The Role of the Prosecutor

  1. Steve Castleman | March 16, 2012 at 1:13 pm

    As a former prosecutor, I’v eseen first-hand how addiction fuels — overruns, really — the criminal justice system. Approximately 3/4 of those in prison have histories of substance abuse.

    However, too many in law enforcement still believe addiction is a moral failure rather than a legitimate brain disease that requires treatment. And programs like drug courts and diversion can serve as a way to clear crowded calendars rather than evince any prosecutorial committment to drug treatment.

    Only by convincing law enforcement that addiction is truly a disease can we insure that they will, in Ms. Broderick’s words, “ensure that treatment and recovery support are available for offenders with identified alcohol or drug dependencies.”

    For a website that discusses the science of addiction (why addiction is a disease; what parts of the brain malfunction; why some get addicted while others don’t; how treatment works; etc.)click on

  2. K. Lippitt | March 16, 2012 at 5:09 pm

    I am a public health practitioner who works to prevent underage and binge drinking amount youth via development, implementation, and enforcement of public policy, laws, and regulations aimed at reducing underage drinking. The only age group more likely to die today than 20 years ago is the 15-25 year age group. Enforcement and adjudication of underage drinking laws are critical to the goal of reducing underage drinking among 12-20 year olds and binge drinking among 21-25 year olds.

    When we became aware of a dismissive attitude by youth for the consequences of alcohol-related offenses, we were concerned. Without a healthy respect for the consequences of violating underage drinking laws, those laws do little to deter underage drinking. We created a subcommittee to attend hearings and trials to gain a better understanding for the judicial experiences of youth following citation and/or arrest for violating underage drinking laws.

    In order to ensure that the serious efforts of law enforcement to interrupt unsafe and unhealthy behaviors by our young people are appropriately reinforced at the judicial level, uniform, consistent, and appropriate adjudication of alcohol-related violations are necessary. This provides a valuable opportunity to prevent further harm to young people from either continuing or escalating their underage drinking. We would like to share some of what we learned, and hope the courts will agree these issues deserve closer attention:

    • Far more young people than previously thought have gone beyond transient experimentation with alcohol and are now engaging in high risk drinking behaviors. Local research by Dr. Beth Sise, JD, RN, MSN, CPNP Director, Trauma Prevention, Physician Ed. & Research, Scripps Mercy Hospital, suggests a similar finding.

    • We have found some judges, not unlike other adults and even parents consider underage drinking to be a “rite of passage.” Such an attitude contributes to a failure by youth to take underage drinking seriously.

    • A failure to impose meaningful fines is considered by young people evidence that underage drinking is not serious. A citation for a Minor in Possession (MIP) charge may cost as little as $149, yet fishing without a license carries a mandatory $348 fine.

    • A failure to impose meaningful consequences for violating underage drinking laws undermines underage drinking laws. Youth are confident their driver licenses will not be suspended since restricted driver licenses are routinely granted.

    • The Office of the City attorney offers to reduce a $250 misdemeanor charge to an infraction carrying a $149 charge in exchange for a guilty plea. Pleas of “not guilty” go to a bench trial where failure to prove innocence is supposed to result in reinstatement of the $250 misdemeanor; however $149 fines are typical.

    Although those convicted of driving under the influence are referred to programs such as MADD’s Victim Impact Panel and sometimes directed to do community service hours, there are no similar referrals for minor in possession. It is logical that “minor in possession” likely occurs earlier along the behavioral continuum than “drinking and driving”; therefore, intervening at this earlier stage makes good prevention sense. Many of these young people have no idea of the risks they are exposing themselves and others to when they engage in underage drinking. Providing youth a realistic evaluation of their alcohol-related behaviors could help prevent further harm or escalation of drinking behaviors.
    We in the prevention community appreciate how our efforts are often limited by a scarcity of funding. The opportunity to assess such a fee could be made available for education and prevention through the Alcohol Abuse Education and Prevention Fee (VC23645) to defray associated costs. This fee was never mentioned in any of the cases we witnessed.
    In conclusion, the judicial experience of youth provides an opportunity to positively re-direct the life of a young person who has gotten off-track and been cited for an alcohol-related offense. The short and long-term harm that result from underage drinking are too serious to fail a young person at such an important juncture. We appreciate your time and consideration of these issues.
    Our hope is that our experiences will provide valuable information for the court to consider when looking at the issue of standard sentencing guidelines, fees, fines and assessments.

    KLippitt, MPH,

  3. Jean | March 16, 2012 at 8:17 pm

    In case you are not aware, or think it not relevant, one main cause young teenagers might start using drugs so early is because their family doctors, phychiatrists, and parents put them on prescription ‘drugs’ such at Ritalin, antidepressants, sleep aides, medicine for ADHD, etc. even as early as grade school. Prescription drugs are now responsible for the most deaths due to ‘addiction’. We have no one to blame but our adult selves. We parents and professionals started these young children on ‘drugs’ long before they could understand the effects and differences from ‘street drugs’. Whenever a school counselor complained that Little Jimmy moved too much, did not pay attention, spoke angry words in reaction to being bullied, many ‘counselors’ called the parents and ‘suggested’ that Little Jimmy see a Phychiatrist or even ‘be hospitalized in a mental hospital’ where often blood tests showed that the young teenager was SO Traumatized that he actually suffered cellular and organ damage. Schools, parents and doctors are to blame for this ‘epidemic’ of early ‘addicts’.

  4. Jay Jaffee | March 19, 2012 at 8:54 am

    It is so important that prosecutors are involved and understand the issues around alcohol and other drug use and abuse.

    However this commentary illustrates the importance of educating people that addiction is not the only problem to be concerned about. I frequently hear the concerns about addiction from people who do not seem to understand the breadth and impact of substance abuse.

    We in the prevention field have obviously not done a good job of educating about this and we need to broaden the focus from addiction to the problems that impact so many more people while still working to prevent addiction.

  5. Jim Joyner | April 3, 2012 at 4:46 pm

    It is so damn frustrating to see story after story and article after article making reference to “alcohol and drugs.” ALCOHOL is a drug!! You are a part of the problem when you make it to be anything less then that. Please, it’s “alcohol and OTHER drugs not alcohol and drugs.” Yet tomorrow I will read something from some well intended individual who will again set alcohol a part of the rest when they too say, alochol and drugs.” How long folks and what’s it going to take before you recognize alcohol for what it is, a very powerful, toxic and harmful DRUG!

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