Research News

New juvenile drug treatment courts guidelines grounded in research

New juvenile drug treatment court guidelines are evidence-based in order to better meet the needs of young offenders.

Juvenile drug treatment courts have a new set of evidence-based, treatment-oriented guidelines, due in part to researchers at Vanderbilt University.

The formulation of new guidelines came as a result of a cooperative agreement between the U.S. Department of Justice’s Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention (OJJDP) and the American Institutes of Research, which assembled a team of experts to evaluate the existing literature and protocols for juvenile drug treatment courts.

According to the Department of Justice, there are an estimated 1.3 million adolescents with substance use disorders in the United States, many exhibiting mental health disorders, traumatic histories and other risk factors. The new guidelines are intended to curb recidivism and promote positive outcomes through equitable and thorough screenings; detailed assessments and case management; referrals to evidence-based substance use treatment and services; monitoring and tracking of program completion.

Emily Tanner-Smith
Tanner Smith

“The new guidelines are designed to bring current practices in line with the interventions that research has found are most effective in curbing recidivism,” said Vanderbilt’s lead investigator Emily Tanner-Smith, associate research professor at the Peabody Research Institute at Vanderbilt’s Peabody College of education and human development. “The goal is to provide the appropriate treatment and care so adolescents can lead meaningful lives and stay out of the court system.”

Together with Peabody colleagues she conducted two systematic reviews and meta-analyses, including a review of existing evidence on how juvenile drug courts have handled youth with substance use disorders. The Peabody team then made recommendations on what treatments work best and how courts can improve their interactions with young people through office processes, case management, needs assessments, program monitoring and treatment referrals.

“Our team has a background in youth development, and we knew from the start that dealing with a teen with a drug offense is very different than dealing with an adult with a drug offense,” Tanner-Smith said. “Adolescents can suffer higher adverse effects and more significant long-term cognitive consequences from substance use than adults, given their still-developing brain, making early intervention vital.”

Family involvement, positive peer relationships and group therapy are important to the process, the Peabody team found. “Engaging families, schools and educational institutions to provide the support youth who commit drug offenses need was found to be extremely effective,” Tanner Smith said. “We also found that family therapy and cognitive behavioral therapy were particularly effective in helping young people reduce destructive substance-related behaviors.”

Providing additional input to the five-year-long project were field experts at George Mason University, WestEd and the Court Centered Change Consultant Network, as well as numerous federal agencies, judges and practitioners.

OJJDP has created an online landing page with an interactive map to assist users in navigating the guidelines, and features research reports and additional resources. The agency will also help courts implement and test these guidelines through training, technical assistance and programmatic initiatives.

Read the new juvenile drug treatment courts guidelines.

Vanderbilt University’s work was supported by Subcontract Number 0373700101 from the American Institutes for Research under the Prime Contract Number 2014-DC-BX-K001 from the U.S. Department of Justice.