Substance Abuse & Juvenile Justice | CASAColumbia

Criminal Neglect: Substance Abuse, Juvenile Justice and The Children Left Behind

Criminal Neglect: Substance Abuse, Juvenile Justice and The Children Left Behind

Published: October 2004

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This comprehensive examination of the relationship between substance abuse and juvenile delinquency sketches a bleak portrait of juvenile justice systems overwhelmed by drug- and alcohol-abusing and addicted 10-to-17-year-olds. By the time these juveniles arrived at the courthouse doors, virtually every other system in this country had failed them. They were likely to have been neglected and abused by parents. Many had grown up in impoverished and dangerous neighborhoods. Schools, teachers and administrators had been unable to engage them. They had either slipped through the cracks in our nation’s health care system, or providers had failed to diagnose or treat their problems. This report documents how substance abuse drove up juvenile justice caseloads, imposing heavy costs on American taxpayers. It examines the costs and benefits of alternative strategies of prevention, early intervention, assessment and treatment, including promising policy and program responses for reducing substance-involved juvenile crime.


CASAColumbia’s study involved extensive analyses of multiple national data sets, an exhaustive literature review of more than 1,000 articles, reports and books, and a review of current research and practice in prevention and treatment.


This report documents the result of profound societal inattention to the needs of the 2.4 million children engaged in the juvenile justice system and millions of others following in their footsteps. Substance abuse was tightly linked with the offenses of 78.4% of juveniles who were taken into custody, yet at every point in the system, we failed to address substance abuse and the constellation of related problems these juveniles faced.

The report found that 1.9 million of 2.4 million juvenile arrests had substance abuse and addiction involvement, and that only 68,600 juveniles received substance abuse treatment. The report revealed that drug or alcohol abuse was implicated in 69% of violent offenses, 72% of property offenses and 81% of assaults, vandalism and disorderly conduct. Other notable findings in this report include:

  • An estimated 30% of incarcerated adults had been arrested as juveniles
  • 92% of arrested juveniles who tested positive for drugs tested positive for marijuana; 14% tested positive for cocaine
  • Up to three-fourths of incarcerated 10-to-17-year-olds had a diagnosable mental health disorder
  • As many as 8 out of 10 incarcerated juveniles suffered from learning disabilities 
  • Compared to juveniles who had not been arrested, those who had been arrested once in the past year were more than twice as likely to have used alcohol, more than 3.5 times likelier to have used marijuana, more than 3 times likelier to have misused prescription drugs, more than 7 times likelier to have used ecstasy, more than 9 times likelier to have used cocaine, and more than 20 times likelier to have used heroin
  • The arrest rate for female juveniles increased more than 7% between 1991 and 2000, while the arrest rate for male juveniles decreased by almost 19%
  • The arrest rate for black juveniles was more than 1.5 times the arrest rate for white juveniles 

A $5,000 investment in juvenile addiction treatment and other appropriate services for each juvenile who would otherwise have been incarcerated would pay for itself in the first year if only 12% stayed in school and remained drug-free and crime-free. Moreover, the report found that if we could prevent crimes and incarceration of 12% of substance-involved adult inmates with juvenile records, we would have 60,480 fewer inmates and 5.9 million fewer crimes, and we would realize $18 billion in avoided criminal justice and health care costs and in employment benefits.


The findings from this report call for a complete overhaul of the juvenile justice system to ensure that each child receives a comprehensive assessment of needs, substance abuse treatment and other appropriate services.

The CASA report recommends:

  • Creating a model juvenile justice code to set a standard of practice and accountability for states in handling juvenile offenders
  • Training all juvenile justice system staff, including juvenile judges, law enforcement and other court personnel, in how to recognize and deal with substance-involved juvenile offenders
  • Extending to juveniles diversion programs such as drug courts
  • Making available treatment, health care, education and job training programs to children in juvenile justice systems
  • Expanding federal grant programs for juvenile justice and juvenile delinquency prevention, and conditioning such grants on reform of state systems
  • Developing state and national data systems to judge progress in meeting the needs of these children 

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