Just Who Are the Right Youth for Juvenile Drug Court Anyway?

Written by Jessica Pearce

Selecting the right youth for your juvenile drug court can be challenging. Research and practice have debated about the appropriate JDC target population for years. However, recently practice and research have begun to converge around an ideal target population of youth who are at high risk of reoffending and in high need, both for substance abuse treatment and other services. In others words, these are youth who cannot be successful in substance abuse treatment without the influence of the court, but who also cannot be successful in completing their terms of probation without getting substance abuse treatment. However, for some JDCs they are the only program in their community for young people with concurrent substance abuse and delinquency. This can lead JDCs to take in youth who do not necessarily fit the profile. This over-inclusion is often driven by the thought that anything is better than nothing. Unfortunately, this is simply not true, and it can damage both the young people who are lower risk, with fewer needs, and the integrity of the JDC itself. Other juvenile drug courts struggle because their funding is tied to the number of youth enrolled in the program. For them, they have to meet their capacity. Unfortunately, in most cases their capacity number was selected arbitrarily and may not be realistic for their communities. In both of these cases, it is vitally important for the ongoing success of individual JDCs, and for the JDC field as a whole, that they stop widening the net and instead concentrate their efforts on the youth who need the intensity of services that 9 – 12 months in a juvenile drug court provides.

If a JDC program utilizes an anything is better than nothing mentality when approaching targeting and eligibility, they might be committing one of the 7 deadly sins.

So how can juvenile drug courts change this practice?

Short-Term Solution:

The JDC Steering Committee should meet and ask these questions:

  • Are the youth high risk/high need?
  • Are we using validated legal and clinical screening and assessment tools to determine risk/need?
  • How many of our youth currently in the program fit this profile?
  • What will happen to the JDC if we stop taking youth who are lower risk with fewer needs?

Depending on the answers to the questions above, the team should make a plan to:

  • Implement validated legal and clinical screening and assessment tools to determine risk/need.
  • Review the data from their community to get a better idea of a realistic number of youth for the JDC.
  • Take necessary steps to discuss with funding agencies the purpose of the juvenile drug court and the right youth for the program.

Long-Term Solution:

The JDC team should use their positions as leaders in their communities to advocate for the creation of a continuum of care that provides services for youth at all risk and need levels.