The Effectiveness of Substance Abuse Treatment with Young Offenders

5. Directions for Future Research

This paper has drawn together disparate lines of evidence examining the relationship between substance use and dependency and criminal activity as well as the variables that may affect the delivery of successful substance abuse treatment to young offenders. Although much additional research is required across each of these areas, several key points of emphasis are presented here to conclude the discussion.

As noted previously, more research needs to be done on exploring the specific relationships between the type of substance abuse and the corresponding type of criminal behaviour. More specifically, several researchers have documented that certain types of substance abuse have strong influences on certain types of criminal activity but not others (Dawkins, 1997; Farrell et al., 1992). Therefore, when designing a treatment protocol for individual offenders, knowledge of the type and magnitude of these specific relationships is imperative for ensuring maximal therapeutic impact.

Issues surrounding race and gender require more attention. This important clinical issue is further compounded when one considers the fact that gender and cultural sensitivity in treatment design and delivery has been essentially ignored in the research literature (Bloom, 1999; Covington, 1998; Rhodes & Jason, 1990) and that this type of focus may be critical for enhancing client retention. Although race and gender have not appeared to impact the relationship between substance abuse and criminal activity, ensuring that programs are race- and gender-sensitive are critical elements in the delivery of effective substance abuse programming (McNeece et al., 2001).

Significantly more resources must be committed to exploring substance abuse within Aboriginal adolescent populations. Although very few articles have examined criminological issues for Aboriginal populations in general (Bonta, LaPrairie, & Wallace-Capretta, 1997), research is essentially absent on Aboriginal youth justice issues. For example, none of the articles reviewed for the present paper dealt specifically with Aboriginal offender populations. Given the expanding Aboriginal population in the Canadian criminal justice system, this area is even more need of immediate study.

Future research should also strive to identify important protective factors for young offender with substance abuse problems given the multiple problematic behaviours which accompany this activity. One such factor is social support. There is limited empirical evidence for its buffering effects from environmental stressors (Zimmerman, Ramirez-Valles, Zapert, & Maton, 2000), and the application of these findings to the adolescent offender literature is suspect for two main reasons. First, these previous studies were conducted on non-offender samples, thus their generalizability to delinquents is questionable. Furthermore, and arguably more important, given the strong relationships between negative peer and family environments and substance abusing and delinquent activity, it is reasonable to assume that the dynamics of this interaction may be different for young offenders.

An additional area for future exploration may be the personal motivations behind substance abusing behaviour in adolescents as this may provide a more direct understanding of why certain individuals are drawn to certain types of deviant activity (White, 1991). For example, offenders who are motivated to engage in substance abusing behaviour to self-medicate require a much different intervention protocol than those who use substances to self-stimulate. Thus, understanding and appreciating the mechanisms underlying these differences in motivation will enhance the therapeutic effectiveness of substance abuse program for young offenders.

Much more work needs to be done on school-based prevention efforts for reducing alcohol and/or drug use as the number of studies captured by the Wilson et al. (2001) study was quite small. This type of investigation is even more critical when one considers the plethora of evidence arguing for the early targeting and intervention for these types of problems (Webster-Stratton & Taylor, 1998).

As noted by several correctional researchers, although some suggestions have been forwarded to deal with the problems related to client attrition from substance abuse treatment programs (see Randall et al., 1999), future research must explore various mechanisms to address this important treatment need (Henggeler et al., 1996; Hiller et al., 1999a; Sealock et al., 1997). One particular avenue for achieving this goal would be to collect qualitative information, using a focus group format, whereby youthful offenders have the opportunity to explain what factors negatively affected their motivation for engaging in the program.

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