Page title

Juvenile Drug Courts Help Youth Dealing With Trauma

Main page content

What Are Juvenile Drug Courts?

Juvenile drug courts were established in the mid-1990s, following in the footsteps of adult drug courts established in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s. Juvenile drug courts aim to divert young people from incarceration by creating a regimen that typically includes treatment, court supervision, drug testing, and family or community linkages. Though youth drug courts evolved out of those established for adults, there are some key differences. In addition to substance use treatment, they typically take into account family involvement, coordination with school systems, and community partnerships.

As of 2011, there were roughly 460 juvenile drug courts in the United States and statistics suggest that they are responding to a significant need in their communities. Nearly one in five youth (17%) entering the juvenile justice system meet criteria for substance use disorders, a number that rises to 39% when those in detention are included. After adjudication, nearly half (47%) of youth put in secure placements have substance use disorders. When youth who meet criteria for other behavioral health disorders are also counted, the total numbers rise as follows: 35% of teens have mental health or substance use disorders at intake; 59% in detention have mental health or substance use disorders; and 64% in secure post-adjudication placements meet criteria for a behavioral health disorder.

Approaches to Creating Juvenile Drug Courts

In 2003, the National Drug Court Institute and the National Council of Juvenile and Family Court Judges (NCJFCJ) convened a wide range of representatives involved in juvenile justice and drugs courts. Together, this group identified 16 strategies for success among juvenile drug courts. These strategies offer a framework for those planning, operating, and evaluating drug courts. Learn more about these strategies for success among juvenile drug courts at the NCJFCJ.

Juvenile drug court models also offer the opportunity to incorporate evidence-based models of treatment into the rehabilitation plan for youth. According to a comparative study of juvenile drug courts and behavioral health outcomes, involving a yearlong randomized trial of 161 youth, researchers learned that drug courts were more effective than family court services in decreasing rates of adolescent criminal and substance use behaviors. When coupled with evidence-based treatment interventions such as multi-systemic therapy, these outcomes were further enhanced.

The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation describes its approach to creating juvenile drug courts in their Reclaiming Futures initiative. The organization's approach offers courts the ability to detect and assess substance use in youth and to provide complementary services and support. By coordinating the efforts of courts, service providers, community groups and individual volunteers, the program empowers communities to help young people break the cycle of substance use and crime. The program uses a six-step model: initial screening, initial assessment, service coordination, initiation, engagement, and completion.

Communities that piloted the Reclaiming Futures approach reported significant improvements in juvenile justice and substance use treatment. Juvenile drug courts offer young people opportunities to engage in prevention, treatment, and linkages to the community—giving them an opportunity to lead healthy lives free of addiction.

This article was published to highlight the April 2014 theme of Alcohol Awareness.

Learn how SAMHSA's GAINS Center for Behavioral Health and Justice Transformation expands its services for people with mental and/or substance use disorders who come into contact with the criminal justice system.

Access more behavioral health and homelessness resources.

Last Updated

Last Updated: 05/04/2020