Reclaiming Futures: Improving Treatment for Youth Involved with the Juvenile Justice System

Our mantra at Reclaiming Futures sums up our goals for youth in the juvenile justice system: more treatment, better treatment, and beyond treatment.  

While not every young person who uses or abuses drugs and alcohol is addicted, we know that addiction is a disease that usually has its onset in adolescence, so intervening early is important. But the problem is particularly acute in the juvenile justice system, which refers nearly half of all teens who enter publicly-funded substance abuse treatment.  We also know that nearly one in five youth at the door of the juvenile justice system have diagnosable substance abuse disorders-- and that the percentage goes up, the deeper youth penetrate the system. Of youth in post-adjudication placements, 47%  have alcohol and drug disorders.  Furthermore, the groundbreaking Pathways to Desistance research on serious juvenile offenders found that substance use was strongly related to their continued criminal activity.

The good news is that substance abuse programs that involve an individual’s family in the intervention are one of the few things that reduced recidivism. That's why, in the communities we work with, we promote the expansion of treatment – more treatment – and the implementation of evidence-based screening and assessment tools, such as the Global Appraisal of Individual Needs (GAIN) – better treatment.  Many times, trauma or other unmet needs can be a contributing factor in a youth's negative behavior choices and need to be addressed.  But evidence-based practices aren't enough. Treatment isn't enough.

Probation isn't enough. Those services eventually come to an end, and then what?  Reclaiming Futures communities also go beyond treatment to focus on enhancing the positive community connections and support available to youth caught in the cycle of drugs, alcohol, and crime, from formal mentors to positive activities with supportive adults to help youth enter and stay in recovery.  The Reclaiming Futures model has now been implemented in 29 communities nationwide, thanks in part to our federal partners, the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) and the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention (OJJDP). That sort of public/private partnership exemplifies the broad-based, public health approach the ONDCP has fostered, through the National Drug Control Strategy it created and administers. 

We're proud to be partners in implementing the National Drug Control Strategy, which takes a comprehensive, public-health approach that can only benefit youth in the justice system. Young people deserve no less.

Reclaiming Futuresis a national initiative launched by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation in 2001, with the aim of improving alcohol and drug treatment for young people caught in the cycle of drugs, alcohol, and crime. Local jurisdictions – led by a judge and a team of professionals, including representatives from juvenile  probation, treatment professionals, and community members – use our six-step model to reinvent the way police, courts, detention facilities, treatment providers, and the community work together.   

Susan Richardson is National Executive Director for Reclaiming Futures

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