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Proven interventions for justice-involved youth often don't get applied

July 29, 2013
by Gary A. Enos, Editor
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As with many aspects of addiction services, determining what works in assisting youths who are in the justice system turns out to be less complicated than seeing those effective approaches get applied widely. A research initiative newly launched by the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) intends not to develop new interventions for youths in juvenile justice, but to identify and address barriers to existing interventions’ implementation.

Six research centers and one coordinating center have been selected to establish partnerships with criminal justice entities and prevention and treatment agencies under the Juvenile Justice Translational Research on Interventions for Adolescents in the Legal System (JJ-TRIALS) project. A NIDA branch director says working with the justice population offers an uncommon opportunity to make an impact on virtually everyone in a particular group.

“It is a high-risk population, so all would meet criteria for a robust prevention intervention,” says Redonna Chandler, PhD, chief of NIDA’s Services Research Branch. “Also, around 45 to 50% have a substance use problem that is serious enough to warrant some treatment intervention.”

Yet at present, only about one-quarter of justice-involved adolescents whose issues with substances warrant a service intervention are receiving any services, says Chandler. “We have evidence-based approaches that are not being utilized,” she says.

The five-year project kicked off July 1 with total annual grant funding of $5 million.

The selected partnerships at the local level will work toward translating knowledge about evidence-based interventions for youths into everyday practices in these systems, starting at the logical beginning with evidence-based screening and assessment. “If you’re not doing that, you can’t do much else,” Chandler says of screening and assessment.

The initiative will focus not on youths held in detention facilities, but on those being supervised in the community. Chandler adds that HIV prevention also stands as a critical goal of the partnership’s efforts. All of the major substances of abuse in this population, with marijuana topping the list, will be examined as part of the work of this partnership, says Chandler.

Chestnut Health Systems is serving as the project’s coordinating center; its work will include conducting a comprehensive survey as an inventory of the interventions currently being offered to justice-involved youths. The participating research centers are Columbia University, Emory University, the University of Kentucky, Mississippi State University, Temple University and Texas Christian University.

Chandler explains that sites were selected with an eye toward building on community-level partnerships that already were fairly well-established. Justice systems in some of these communities contract with private treatment providers to offer substance use services, while others largely use in-house treatment professionals.

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