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Meta-Analysis of Adolescent Crime and Substance Use, 1981-1995

Gordon E. Kenney, Ph.D. The University of Memphis Memphis, Tennessee, USA 38152

December, 1996


The use of psychoactive substances has been cited by drug enforcement officials as a cause of criminal behavior. Apart from the manufacture, sale, and/or delivery of illicit substances, substance *use* has been regarded as a primary precipitant of criminal behavior, especially violent behavior (e.g., Drug Enforcement Administration, 1994). To date, however, it seems that such assertions have been based on anecdotal evidence, with little, if any, empirical support. Even data from the federal government fails to support such a link. For example, during 9 contemporaneous reporting periods between 1972 and 1990, the correlations between adolescent (ages 17 and younger) violent, property, and overall crime rates and mean adolescent (ages 12-17) usage rates for 10 substances (both licit and illicit) were .09, .27, and .20, respectively (Federal Bureau of Investigation, 1972-90; National Institute on Drug Abuse, 1991). These correlations can hardly be viewed as suggestive of any meaningful relationships between crime and substance use. Such evidence, however, is circumstantial. Other indicators are needed to establish any real relationship, whether large or small, between crime and drug use.

The purpose of this study was to excavate the body of recent scholarly research in this domain for any evidence concerning the role of substance use in criminal acts perpetuated by adolescents and to summarize these findings using meta-analysis (Wolf, 1986).


Scholarly research products of a primary nature were gleaned from social science databases (including Dissertation Abstracts International, Educational Resources Information Clearinghouse, PsycLit, and metropolitan Memphis, Tennessee, book holdings). The search was limited to studies concerning adolescent criminology reported between 1981 and 1995.

Resultant inferential statistics from each study pertaining to general delinquency, reoffense, and/or violence as each related to substance use were converted to effect sizes in the form of r using Wolf's (1986) formulae. The r statistic, here used as an effect size, remains essentially a correlation coefficient which ranges from -1.0 to +1.0, where -1.0 constitutes a perfect negative relationship, +1.0 constitutes a perfect positive relationship, and 0.0 constitutes absolutely no relationship. A squared correlation coefficient (r^2) represents the percentage of shared variance among the variables in question.


Fifteen (15) primary research studies were found which met the aforementioned criteria (see Table 1). Of these, 13 were conducted in 10 states in the United States, and 2 were conducted in Canada. There were 6 research articles from refereed journals, 6 dissertations/theses, 2 unpublished conference research presentations, and 1 unpublished research report. A total of 3,583 adolescent offenders were involved in these 15 studies.

The mean unweighted r for the relationship between adolescent crime and substance use was .22 (df = 13, not significant), with a median of .17, and a range of .00 to .68. The amount of shared variance between overall adolescent crime and substance use was about 5%. The strength of these effect size estimates was considered low.

Only 4 of the studies investigated the relationship between adolescent violent crime and substance use (total number of offenders studied was 834). The mean unweighted r for these studies was .10 (df = 13, not significant), with a median of .08, and a range of .07 to .15. The amount of shared variance between violent adolescent crime and substance use was 1%. These effect size estimates were considered very low.


Table 1

Research Studies Included in the Meta-Analysis of Adolescent Crime and Substance Use

Study N Outcome Locale r
Vincent (1981) 64 reoffense MD .00
Dawkins & Dawkins (1983) 342 delinquency MD .30
Andrews et al. (1986) 192 reoffense Canada .33
Lindgren et al. (1986) 84 reoffense IA .25
Cornell (1987) 72 violence VA .07
Veletza (1990) 64 delinquency MA .55
Watts & Wright (1990) 437 delinquency TX .68
Anderson (1991) 514 reoffense Canada .29
Dembo et al. (1991) 398 violence FL .09
Kahn & Chambers (1991) 221 violence WA .07
Archibald et al. (1992) 779 reoffense MA .00
Carter (1992) 48 reoffense ID .14
Duncan (1992/93) 130 reoffense FL .17
Wierson (1992/93) 95 reoffense GA .26
Kenney (1995) 143 violence TN .15

Note. Studies listed chronologically. Two-letter locale codes refer to states in the USA.

No discernible temporal pattern was observed. Overall, the correlation between year of study and effect size estimate was .02 (df = 13, not significant), which was considered very low.

Among 7 studies conducted in the "north" (i.e., Canada, Idaho, Iowa, Massachusetts, and Washington) the mean unweighted effect size was .23 (df = 5, not significant), with a median of .25, and a range of .00 to 55. This effect size was considered low. Among 8 studies conducted in the "south" (i.e., Florida, Georgia, Maryland, Tennessee, Texas, and Virginia) the mean unweighted effect size was .22 (df = 6, not significant), with a median of .16, and a range of .00 to .68. This effect size was considered low. The effect sizes based on geography were not considered to be substantially different.

Gender, ethnocultural heritage, property crimes, and particular substances used were not evaluated because these variables were seldom noted in more than a few of the selected studies.

CONCLUSIONS The relationship between adolescent crime and substance use was found to be small. Overall, substance use accounted for only about 5% of the variance associated with overall adolescent criminal behavior, and less than 1% of the variance associated with adolescent violent behavior. These findings were remarkably similar to those involving federal government data noted earlier. Neither temporal nor geographic patterns were observed concerning the effect size estimates reported in the 15 studies.

Therefore, assertions about the precipitous role of substance use in adolescent crime do not appear to be supported by the body of recent scholarly research in this area. Similar investigations concerning adult crime and substance use are warranted before any definite conclusions may be reached about this controversial issue. It is clear, however, that adolescent substance use, though a crime in and of itself, is not fundamentally related to broader indices of adolescent crime.



Anderson, D. G. (1991). Recidivism rates of special needs youth under the Youth Offenders Act in the province of Manitoba: Clinical and policy implications (Doctoral dissertation, United States International University, 1991). Dissertation Abstracts International, 52, B3282.

Andrews, D. A., Kiessling, J. J., Mickus, S., & Robinson, D. (1986). The construct validity of interview-based risk assessment in corrections. Canadian Journal of Behavioural Science, 18, 460-470.

Archibald, M. E., Brown, M. E., & Cicchetti, C. A. (1992). Juvenile delinquency: A study of Massachusetts juvenile probationers. Boston: Massachusetts Trial Court, Office of Commissioner of Probation. (ERIC DRS No. ED 348 594)

Carter, K. L. (1992). An evaluation of intensive and regular probation supervision for serious, habitual juvenile offenders (Doctoral dissertation, University of Idaho, 1992). Dissertation Abstracts International, 53, A1764.

Cornell, D. G. (1987, March). Clinical assessment of the violent adolescent. Paper presented at the meeting of the National Association of School Psychologists, New Orleans. (ERIC DRS No. ED 289 154)

Dawkins, R. L., & Dawkins, M. P. (1983). Alcohol use and delinquency among Black, White, and Hispanic adolescent offenders. Adolescence, 18, 799-809.

Dembo, R., Williams, L., Getreu, A., & Genung, L. (1991). Recidivism among high-risk youths: Study of a cohort of juvenile detainees. International Journal of the Addictions, 26, 121-177.

Drug Enforcement Administration. (1994, August). Anti-legalization debate guide. Formulated at the Anti-Legalization Forum, DEA Training Academy.

Duncan, R. D. (1993). Psychometric and behavioral indices of personal adjustment, antisociality, and drug involvement as predictors of recidivism in juvenile delinquents (Doctoral dissertation, Florida State University, 1992). Dissertation Abstracts International, 53, B5443.

Federal Bureau of Investigation. (1972-1990). Uniform crime reports for the United States. Washington: Department of Justice, Author.

Kahn, T. J., & Chambers, H. J. (1991). Assessing reoffense risk with juvenile sexual offenders. Child Welfare, 70, 333-345.

Kenney, G. E. (1995). Predicting violent reoffense among adolescent offenders following shock incarceration (Doctotal dissertation, The University of Memphis). Dissertatin Abstracts International.

Lindgren, S. D., Harper, D. C., Richman, L. C., & Stehbens, J. A. (1986). "Mental imbalance" and the prediction of recurrent delinquent behavior. Journal of Clinical Psychology, 42, 821-825.

National Institute on Drug Abuse. (1991). National household survey on drug abuse: Main findings 1990 (DHHS Publications No. ADM-91-1788). Washington: Department of Health and Human Services, Public Health Service, Author

Veletza, L. (1990). Academic failure in the development of at-risk behavior (Doctoral dissertation, Boston University, 1990). Dissertation Abstracts International, 51, A1176.

Vincent, T. (1981, August). Predicting success or failure in a juvenile diversion program. Paper presented at the meeting of the American Psychological Association, Los Angeles. (ERIC DRS No. ED 210 619)

Watts, W. D., & Wright, L. S. (1990). The relationship of alcohol, tobacco, marijuana, and other illegal drug use to delinquency among Mexican American, Black, and White adolescent boys. Adolescence, 25, 171-181.

Wierson, M. H. (1993). Predicting recidivism in incarcerated juvenile delinquents: The role of mental health diagnoses (Doctoral dissertation, University of Georgia, 1992). Dissertation Abstracts International, 53, B3801.

Wolf, F. M. (1986). Meta-analysis: Quantitative methods for research synthesis (Sage University Paper Series on Quantitative Applications in the Social Sciences, No. 07-059). Beverly Hills, CA: Sage.

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