David Lewis

Distributed November 1999
Copyright ©1999 by David C. Lewis
Op-Ed Editor: Tracie Sweeney
About 410 Words

Justice for Juveniles

Adolescents with serious behavioral problems are seven times more likely to be dependent on alcohol or illicit drugs. But rather than provide them with needed treatment, our policy toward their misbehaviors, however egregious, has become more and more punitive.

By David C. Lewis, M.D.

Once again, we must focus on the discrepancy between treatment and punishment options in our public response to substance abuse. The current lack of accessible substance abuse and mental health treatment for juveniles is a national scandal.

Of all the populations in need of treatment, our young people are the most neglected. A SAMSHA study, released in June 1999, compared adolescents with serious behavioral problems, such as repeated physical aggression and stealing, to adolescents with a low degree of behavioral problems. Those with serious behavioral problems were seven times more likely to be dependent on alcohol or illicit drugs.

Yet, in spite of the obvious need to provide early treatment intervention for these at-risk youth, our policy toward their youthful misbehaviors, however egregious, has become more and more punitive. Early intervention is delayed; behavioral problems escalate; and problems are approached through the juvenile criminal system, often leading to incarceration. The public is quite tolerant of this approach, even encourages it. In fact, the public is so fearful of adolescent crime that it acquiesces to punishing juveniles as adults.

Some of this fear is realistic, but some is part of the mythology of an out-of-control juvenile crime wave. Dire predictions about juvenile crime used to be commonplace. For example, in 1995 Princeton University Professor John DiIulio warned, “This is the lull before the crime storm.” But actual data now more closely approximate the recent view of Professor Frank Zimring of University of California at Berkeley. According to him, evidence of a juvenile crime wave, “either current or on the horizon, is no more substantial than the evidence that supports the existence of the Loch Ness monster.” Zimring points out that the alleged surge in juvenile crime arose from what amounted to a more vigorous reporting of such offenses as assault.

The good news is that, currently, juvenile crime is not an epidemic. This should be no surprise in view of the dramatic drop in overall crime rates. According to the Justice Department announcement of July 7, 1999, crime rates are lower now than they were in 1973 – the first year in which these statistics were gathered. The bad news is that we are punishing kids more and treating them less.

Let’s give kids a fair shake. They shouldn’t have to be arrested to get into treatment. Let’s make it a priority to develop a public health policy that employs health interventions early, before our troubled youth become offenders and prisoners.

Dr. David C. Lewis, a Brown University professor of medicine and community health, directs the Brown University Center for Alcohol and Addiction Studies. He also is project director of the Physician Leadership on National Drug Policy (PLNDP).