OP-ED: Reducing Youth Crime by Treating Substance Abuse

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John LashOne of the most effective and long-running efforts to change both policies and practices in juvenile justice is Reclaiming Futures, housed at the Regional Research Institute for Human Services of the School of Social Work at Portland State University in Oregon. The organization began in 2001 with a $21 million grant from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, and initially went to work in 10 communities.

Now they are active in 37 communities in 18 states. Their six-step model tracks various phases of youth involvement with the justice system and brings together “judges, probation officers, substance abuse treatment professionals and community members” to provide the services that kids need to address their needs and make the community safer.

The main focus of the approach is treating substance abuse, a behavior strongly linked to youth crime and delinquency. The six steps seek to identify drug and alcohol use early on in the youth’s encounter with the justice system, then ensure quality treatment, support and transition back to everyday life.

Since its beginning, Reclaiming Futures has been dedicated to data collection and evaluation, and independent analysis of the founding communities has shown improvement in quality of service, improved efficiency of service delivery, improved outcomes for kids and an overall savings when compared to more traditional approaches.

The current director, Susan Richardson, wrote a post last week entitled “How to Help More Kids in 2014.” She writes: “Did you know that 343,000 teens are arrested each year in the United States for drug and alcohol related crimes, yet only one in 16 teens who need treatment receive it?” Problems like this are at the heart of what Reclaiming Futures seek to change. All too often the facts have little to do with how youth crime and delinquency are addressed.

With a commitment to processes and interventions that work, and that are both trackable and repeatable, Reclaiming Futures has made a deep and sustainable impact on the communities where their approach has been implemented. Let’s hope their work is spread further around the country in the coming year.

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