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Juvenile Injustice?

Nearly four in five young people arrested for juvenile crimes are involved with alcohol or drugs, and few are getting treatment, a study of the juvenile justice system finds.

The five-year study by the National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse at Columbia University said of the 1.9 million arrests of young offenders with substance abuse and addiction problems, only about 68,600 got some form of substance abuse treatment.

The study of mostly 10- to 17-year-olds found that mental health services are scarce and most education programs for young people in the system fail to meet state standards.

"Instead of helping, we are writing off these young Americans," said Joseph A. Califano Jr., chairman of the addiction center. "We are releasing them without attending to their needs for substance abuse treatment and other services, punishing them without providing help to get back on track."

The study being released Thursday found:

  • At least 30 percent of adults in prison for felony crimes were incarcerated as juveniles.
  • Ninety-two percent of arrested juveniles who tested positive for drugs, tested positive for marijuana; 14.4 percent for cocaine.
  • 50 percent to 80 percent of incarcerated juveniles suffer from learning disabilities.
  • 50 to 75 percent of all incarcerated juveniles have a mental health disorder.

    The study urged a greater emphasis on assessing juveniles' needs and offering substance abuse treatment and other services.

    Mark Soler, head of the Youth Law Center, an advocacy group in Washington, said the response to children who break the law - locking them up in a detention facility, the equivalent of a juvenile jail - is not helping them.

    "Most of these young people can be safely placed in responsible community programs where they can get treatment," he said. "But when they're locked up behind bars they rarely get that kind of treatment."

    The study of 2000 data examined 2.4 million arrests of minors who ended up in the juvenile justice system; some 1.9 million had been involved with drugs or alcohol.

    That is defined as using those substances when committing the offense; testing positive for drugs; getting arrested for an alcohol or drug offense; or acknowledging substance abuse and addiction problems.

    By Siobhan McDonough

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