A majority of the teens in juvenile detention were under the influence of drugs or alcohol at the time of their arrest. In addition to the myriad of possible health problems, young people risk a life of crime and legal trouble when they abuse dangerous substances.

Drugs and Crime

Getting caught with illicit drugs or alcohol when you’re under the age limit is reason enough for a young person to face legal trouble. Possession, public intoxication and buying or selling substances — including prescription pills — are often how many teens first cross paths with law enforcement.

The influence of teen substance abuse is far-reaching:

  • 44% of teens arrested for burglary attributed their crime to the need for money to buy drugs
  • 1 out of 3 teens arrested for assault attributed their crime to being high or drunk
  • Chronic violent offenders are 3 times more likely to drink alcohol regularly and twice as likely to smoke marijuana regularly
  • 29% of chronic violent offenders regularly use amphetamines

Effects of Drug Abuse

Disorderly conduct or acting strange in public can justify a police intervention. Teens can become irrational and violent while high or drunk, prone to acts of robbery or vandalism in those moments of being under the influence — perhaps even resorting to stealing from peers or loved ones to fund their drug habit. Teen drinking can especially endanger their own lives and the lives of countless others.

Many teens see their lives and futures permanently altered by drug-related jail time, legal fees and criminal records. Many of them wind up as repeat offenders who, for one reason or another, find it difficult to get back on the right side of the law. For these teens, drugs and alcohol are daily fixtures in their increasingly troubled lives.

Drugs and Juvenile Offenders

Research shows that substance use increases a teen’s likelihood of a prolonged interaction with the juvenile justice system, in addition to producing antisocial behavior and being a partial cause or result of co-occurring mental disorders. The earlier a child begins abusing drugs or alcohol, the greater their probability of serious and persistent criminal behavior — and the more serious their substance abuse, the more serious their offenses are likely to be.

According to recent studies:

  • 4 out of every 5 juvenile offenders are under the influence while committing their crimes, test positive for drugs, admit having substance problems, are arrested for committing an alcohol or drug offense, or they exhibit some combination of these characteristics
  • 85% of juvenile offenders admitted buying drugs
  • 55% of juvenile offenders reported selling drugs
  • 46% of juvenile offenders were under the influence of alcohol at the time of their arrest
  • 67% of juvenile offenders use 1 or more substances on a daily basis — 72% of these individuals report committing crime between 3 and 7 days each week

Among offenders who were intoxicated on drugs at the time of their arrest:

  • 75% were under the influence of marijuana
  • 39% were under the influence of amphetamines

How Teens Become Repeat Offenders

Only a fraction of teens in juvenile detention receive proper substance abuse or drug rehab treatment. Around 53% of incarcerated teens are in facilities that don’t provide mental health evaluations to all. More often than not, they are released back into the world without their substance use disorders or co-occurring mental disorders being successfully treated.

On top of that, without academic support, regimented aftercare, career counseling or assisted living, these teens are likely to return to dysfunctional homes and little or no social support. It’s why so many young criminals become repeat offenders, and it’s why so many seek drugs or alcohol as an escape from their problems. The rate of juvenile recidivism, or relapsing into criminal behavior after detention, is as high as 81% in some areas of the U.S.

A juvenile record can appear on background checks long into your child’s adult years. This can affect many aspects of their life, including:

  • Employment opportunities
  • Eligibility for public housing
  • Joining the military
  • Driving privileges
  • Admission or readmission to school
  • Financial aid for college

If arrested as an adult, these juvenile records can result in longer periods of incarceration. Any related court costs or legal fees can become a major plight for an offender and his or her family — this can send a young person into serious debt and possibly hurt their credit rating in a big way.

On top of all this, being arrested can add permanent emotional scars to what may be an already fragile person. The hope with being arrested is that it will teach young criminals a lesson and send them back into the world as better people. All too often, though, it can be just the beginning of their strife and send them back into the world desperate and send them into depression.

What Causes Criminal Behavior?

In all too many cases, a young person’s life of crime stems from a difficult upbringing:

  • Around one-third of juvenile offenders endured emotional or violent abuse
  • Around one-fifth of offenders were left alone for long periods of time
  • Approximately two-thirds of offenders say a member of their family abused substances while they were growing up
  • 42% of young offenders were not living with their parents at the time of their last offense
  • 75% of these kids did not continue their education past grade 7, 8 or 9
  • Almost half of juvenile offenders were suspended from school regularly, and 6 out of 10 had been expelled

In addition to difficulty in school or at home — and perhaps because of it — teens who engage in criminal behavior are often struggling with severe emotional or psychological issues

  • Two-thirds of juvenile offenders report symptoms of depressionanxiety or high aggression
  • 27% of incarcerated youth have severe mental illness — 2–4 times higher than the national rate

Does Your Teenager Need Rehab?

Positive family involvement and talking with your children about the dangers of substance use has an immeasurable impact on their development. Engage them constantly and ask them to come to you with any problems that arise, be it difficulties in school, social issues or emotional hurdles. At the first sign of an addiction or worrisome behavior, have a conversation that explores the situation.

If you feel your son or daughter is using drugs or alcohol, getting to the problem early can help prevent it from becoming serious. Be sure to speak with their teachers or local treatment professionals if you feel they may be at risk for criminal activity — or if you suspect they may already be involved.

In some cases, planning an intervention may help deter your child from continuing down a dangerous path, easing them onto the road to recovery. Speak to a TheRecoveryVillage.com recovery advisor to find out about interventions and drug rehab options for your teenager and your family.


Study: 1 in 3 Americans Arrested By Age 23

Szalavitz, Maia. “Study: 1 in 3 Americans Arrested By Age 23.” TIME.com. Time Inc, 19 Dec. 2011. Web. 30 Mar. 2016.

Carter, Shiloh. “The Relationship Between Substance Abuse and Teen Crime.” Reclaiming Futures. Portland State University, 15 Oct. 2012. Web. 30 Mar. 2016.

#” data=”LegitScript
“Alcohol, Drugs and Crime.” National Council on Alcoholism and Drug Dependence. NCADD, 27 June 2015. Web. 30 Mar. 2016.

Prichard, Jeremy, and Jason Payne. “Alcohol, drugs and crime: a study of juveniles in detention.” Australian Institute of Criminology – Home. Australian Institute of Criminology, 2005. Web. 30 Mar. 2016.

“From Juvenile Delinquency to Young Adult Offending.” Office of Justice Programs. National Institute of Justice, 11 Mar. 2014. Web. 28 Mar. 2016.

Clark, Kim. “What Happens in Juvenile Court, Doesn’t Always Stay in Juvenile Court – The Myths and Realities About Juvenile Records and Expungements — Models for Change: Systems Reform in Juvenile Justice.” Models for Change: Systems Reform in Juvenile Justice. Models for Change, 15 July 2010. Web. 30 Mar. 2016.

Gottesman, David, and Susan W. Schwarz. “Juvenile Justice in the U.S. – Facts for Policymakers.” NCCP | Home. National Center for Children in Poverty, July 2011. Web. 30 Mar. 2016.

Medical Disclaimer

The Recovery Village aims to improve the quality of life for people struggling with substance use or mental health disorder with fact-based content about the nature of behavioral health conditions, treatment options and their related outcomes. We publish material that is researched, cited, edited and reviewed by licensed medical professionals. The information we provide is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. It should not be used in place of the advice of your physician or other qualified healthcare providers.