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Connection of Substance Abuse with Juvenile Delinquency in Colleges

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The most significant challenge impacting the juvenile justice system in the United States is substance abuse, specifically the use of hard drugs like cocaine, meth, and similar substances. In this essay I will focus mostly on the Luisa Cutting case from earlier this year. I will then compare it to Brenda Spencer’s case as in both cases the crimes were committed due to alcohol consumption and drug usage. Following that, I will use the Differential Association Theory, General Strain Theory, and Labeling Theory to describe their impact in both the Luisa Cutting case and juvenile justice.

Luisa Cutting

In January 2019, Luisa Ines Tudela Harris Cutting, a 21 year old student who attended Radford University in Virginia, was arrested for the murder of her best friend and roommate Alexa Cannon. Officers were first called onto the scene around 7:45 am when neighbors heard Cutting and Cannon arguing. According to a search warrant claimed by The Roanoke Times, the dispatcher on the line heard a woman yelling and a reference to a knife (Gangloff). When police arrived on scene, Cutting met them at the door covered in blood. Her first words to the officers were “Arrest me. I killed her”, – to which she turned around and put her hands behind her back (Gangloff). When the officers entered the apartment, they found Cannon unconscious on the floor with multiple stab wounds and a butcher knife sticking out of her mouth.

The days following the murder, the President of Radford University Brian Hemphill sent out an email regarding what had happened. In his email he said: “Alexa was pursuing a degree in psychology and was planning to graduate next May. She was very involved on campus and was a proud member of several organizations. Like every Highlander, Alexa had a full life ahead of her, a life poised to make a great impact on those she would have encountered, the career she was pursuing and the communities in which she would have lived. Please join me in expressing the Radford family’s deepest sympathies and lasting condolences to the Cannon family and all of those impacted by Alexa’s passing and this inexcusable and heinous act’ (Gangloff).

Chris Rehak, Radford City Commonwealth’s Attorney assigned to the case, claims that she had not slept for several days and had taken cocaine, marijuana, mushrooms and Xanax the night before. This was verified as the search warrant says that investigators found “pills, grinders, and multiple smoking devices in Cutting’s bedroom. They found a brown, chalk-like substance in the apartment’s bar/kitchen area” (Gangloff). Cutting’s Defense Attorney, Blair Howard, claimed that Cutting had a history of drug abuse which led to a psychotic episode causing her to exhibit strange behavior such as praying out loud in Spanish, attempting to shove her hands in her mouth, and having “cocaine with the devil” (McGirl). Due to her behavior, Cutting was hospitalized for 11 days upon being detained. Cutting has pled guilty to 2nd degree murder and was given a 20 year active sentenced.

During her trial she said that her “heart goes out to the Cannon family. I am so, so sorry” (McGirl). Rehak followed up with the media saying: “Perhaps more importantly, the agreement secured a murder conviction, avoided any appeals and spared Alexa’s family and friends the anguish and anxiety of trial. The Commonwealth also considered the impact and viability of defenses such as insanity, irresistible impulse and voluntary intoxication. Second degree murder appropriately fit our specific facts, reflects the provable criminal intent and achieves justice. The twenty-year active sentence is at the high end of second degree murder sentencing guidelines which recommend 12 years and 9 months to 21 years and 4 months with a midpoint of 17 years and 1 month (McGirl). Cutting had decided to plead guilty to her crime with the demands set up by the Cannon family. In doing so, she saved the Cannon family the pain of having to listen to the details of Alexa’s death. While the plea deal benefited Cutting, it also helped the Cannon family move on quicker in their grief.

Brenda Spencer

On January 29, 1979, Brenda Spencer shot up an elementary school across the street from where she lived. Spencer was 16 years old when she was given a rifle for Christmas from her father. Spencer was charged in court as an adult and was sentenced to 25 years to life, to be served concurrently, for two accounts of murder (Repard). Spencer claims that she was heavily under the influence of multiple substances when the shooting happened and that she was not aware of what she was doing.

According to Spencer, there were two sets of toxicology reports. One that went to court with her that said she had no drugs in her system and another from an independent company that alcohol and a “lethal amount of drugs” in her system (CBS 8, San Diego). Spencer argues that the mixture of alcohol and drugs is what led her to shooting Cleveland Elementary School and killing two people.

Historically, I felt like this case is similar to the Luisa Cutting Case as both cases involved drug usage as the leading factor towards violence. The difference between the two is that Luisa Cutting seems to be more remorseful of the act she committed. She pled guilty to the crime as a way to help the Cannon family so that they did not need to live through the details of the murder. Spencer keeps fighting for probation as she claims that the drugs is what made her do the shooting. Both girls were under the influence of alcohol and a mixture of drugs, but Cutting takes ownership of what she did while Spencer continues to argue against her ruling.

In both cases, the girls were given different sentences. Cutting was sentenced to 20 years and Spencer was served with 25 years to life to be served concurrently. I believe the difference in the sentencing is how Cutting and Spencer acted after the murders were committed. Cutting immediately gave herself up to police officers and said “Arrest me. I killed her” (Gangloff). Spencer took a while to get out of her home where she was doing the shooting and when first asked why she did it, she said: “ just don’t like Mondays… I did this because it’s a way to cheer up the day” (Repard).

Criminological and Sociological Theories

For the next part of this essay, I will be focusing on three different theories and explaining their connection to illicit drug use in youths and college students. The three theories are Differential Association Theory, General Strain Theory, and Labeling Theory.

Differential Association Theory

College is a time when many students begin to find themselves by exploring new things. While college is a great time for growth, it also allows for students to fall into bad habits and become addicted or overuse certain products. According to a study done by Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) done between 2011 and 2014, they found that on an average day in the year, “2,179 full-time college students drank alcohol for the first time, and 1,326 used an illicit drug for the first time” (Lipari). This study was done based around 21,000 full-time students between the ages of 18 and 22. This study also included data for part-time students but for the purpose of this paper I will be focusing on full-time students as this pertains the most to the Luisa Cutting case. The study shows that alcohol was the most used by college students with 2,179 and 1,158,415 respectively. According to the student, nearly 60.1% of the population drank alcohol in the past month, 39% engaged in binge drinking and 13.2% engaged in heavy alcohol use (Lipari). They also stated that nearly 22.2% of full-time college students used an illicit drug within the past month (Lipari).

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I present this information to show exactly how common alcohol consumption and drug usage is in colleges and universities. It is not something that is as uncommon as many believe and almost everyone is participating to some degree. This ties into Differential Association Theory which is defined as “the learning of behaviors and norms from groups with which we have contact” (Bates 4). This theory explains how the impact of drug abuse and drug culture in colleges and universities can affect college students usage of it. When so many other students are participating in such activities, students do not see the problem with them participating in them as well. It becomes a norm. Students instead feel like an outcast when they do not participate in such activities. They may feel like that are missing out.

While we do not know the details about Luisa Cutting’s friend group, we do know that she had a history of drug abuse which may have come from the normalized idea of drug usage among college students.

General Strain Theory

General Strain Theory is:

  1. “The anticipated or actual failure to achieve a goal (for example, not achieving a spot on a sports team or achieving popularity with peers)
  2. The anticipated or actual loss of a positive stimulus (for example, the death of a parent of breakup of a romantic relationship)
  3. The anticipated or actual presentation of a negative stimulus (for example, physical assaults, negative grades, public insults, discrimination, or oppression).

Such negative relations will likely lead to anger and frustration, which may then lead to delinquent behavior, such as physical violence, running away from home, illicit drug use, or self-harming behavior” (Bates, 115).

College is a difficult time for many students, especially when it comes to balance. Many students have to balance a full course load, work, extracurricular, and a social life. Luisa Cutting was one of these students. Cannon had posted a congratulatory post on her Facebook page stating: “So incredibly proud of my best friend, Luisa Cutting for becoming Latinos Student Alliance’s President! I know you’re going to be amazing with everything you do! Love you more!!” (Naham). Along with the academic strain that all college students face when attending a college or university, Cutting now had the added pressure of running a student organization. As President of a student organization you are held to a certain standard, both by peers and the individual. The President is typically expected to be an example for the rest of the student organization and remaining executive board. Cutting, in this position, most likely felt extreme pressure both externally and internally.

In a study done by Jordan Pedalino and Kelly Frailing, they focused on General Strain Theory and prescription drug misuse among honors students. Their study focused on finding out whether or not different strains of college life impacted the kinds of prescriptions drugs that were misused. In their study they found that there are “sixteen independent variables [that] significantly predicted drinking, marijuana, and illicit drug use at the 0.05 level. Two of these were strain variables: expectations of self and fighting with friends” (Pedalono). Typically those who have higher expectations of themselves tend to worry more when they are not living up to their own self-perceived potential. They only stress themselves out more because they believe they are failing. This connects with the third part of the General Strain Theory where an anticipated negative result could lead to frustration where the student may use violence or drugs as a means of escape.

Labeling Theory

The Labeling Theory explains “the process of first calling a particular act a delinquent one and then using that label to justify a particular means of punishing or reacting to the person who has been labeled” (Bates, 154). While I do not believe Luisa Cutting was labeled specifically, she is a Latina and because of that she faces certain discrimination and prejudices.

For example, the current President of the United States holds very public opinions of what he considers Mexicans to be. In one of his more well-known interviews on immigration and the Mexican border, he said “These aren’t people. These are animals” (Korte). In that same interview, Trump also said “When Mexico sends its people, they’re not sending their best. They’re bringing drugs. They’re bringing crime. They’re rapists. And some, I assume, are good people” (Korte). It does not matter if you are one of these “animals” that Trump claims Mexicans (or Latinos) to be, when an individual hears that kind of rhetoric about their own people it gets to them. Cutting was President of Latino student organization on campus at a majority white university. In 2016, Radford University had an overall student population that was “70.7% White, 14.4% Black or African American, 6.51% Hispanic or Latino, 4.61% two or more races, 1.45% Asian, 0.234% American Indian or Alaska Native, and 0.17% Native Hawaiian or Other Pacific Islanders” (Radford University).

Being a representative for a small percentage of students when the leader of the country you reside in is throwing blatant hate towards your people is stressful and alarming. This negative label on Cutting, though not on her specifically, is an added strain to her everyday life. She may have felt that she needed to be an even better student and role model than before in order to live against this negative stereotype. This in turn may have been what caused her to use a multitude of drugs consistently and the lack of sleep. In doing all this, she ended up becoming the negative label that was put on her by being Latina – a murderer. She became an example of what Trump and his followers believe Latinos/as/x are.

Public Policies

As more and more youths use drugs, it is harder to keep control of what drugs are being used. For instance, the usage of marijuana is a growing concern. Cannabis is technically illegal on the federal level, but it is legal in the state of California for those who are 21 years old and above. This makes it difficult when coming up with legislation that would limit cannabis usage as there is no test that immediately shows whether or not a person is under the influence of cannabis. This allows for marijuana to be abused more easily in situations such as driving a motor vehicle.

Coming up with a public policy on a national level is tricky as national politicians seem to have the mindset of out of sight, out of mind. On a state level, I think a lot of the responsibility goes to the distributors. It is their responsibility to check that the people they are selling to are of age. Marijuana has become legal in some states because it is not seen as that serious of a danger as other drugs. The main concern comes with testing for it in instances where it could be a potential danger, such as driving which was mentioned earlier. Cannabis slows down reaction time and when driving this is dangerous as many things are happening rapidly and things can go wrong in a second. There needs to be an effort into a test that will quickly test if drivers are under the influence of cannabis.


  1. Bates, K. A., & Swan, R. S. (2018). ​Juvenile Delinquency in a Diverse Society​ (2nd ed.). SAGE Publications, Inc.
  2. CBS 8 San Diego. ​1993: Convicted school shooter Brenda Spencer speaks with San Diego’s
  3. News 8​. (2019). Retrieved from
  4. Gangloff, M. (2019, January 24). University student accused in Radford homicide case. Retrieved from​
  5. Gangloff, M. (2019, October 7). Luisa Cutting pleads guilty to Radford murder of Alexa Cannon; sentenced to 20 years. Retrieved from
  6. Korte, G., & Gomez, A. (2018, May 17). Trump ramps up rhetoric on undocumented immigrants: ‘These aren’t people. These are animals.’. Retrieved from
  7. Lipari, R. N., & Jean-Francois, B. (2016, May 26). A DAY IN THE LIFE OF COLLEGE STUDENTS AGED 18 TO 22: SUBSTANCE USE FACTS. Retrieved from
  8. McGirl, S. (2019, October 8). Former Radford student pleads guilty to killing roommate.
  11. Naham, M. (2019, October 9). Roommate Who Stabbed ‘Best Friend’ to Death in Drug-Fueled ‘Psychotic Episode’ Pleads Guilty. Retrieved from
  12. Pedalono, J., & Frailing, K. (2018). General Strain Theory and Prescription Drug Misuse among Honors Students. ​Journal of the National Collegiate Honors Council, 19​(1), 85–103. Retrieved from
  13. Radford University. (n.d.). Retrieved from
  14. Repard, P. (2019, January 31). 40 years ago, Brenda Spencer took lives, changed lives in a mass shooting at a San Diego elementary school. Retrieved from

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Connection of Substance Abuse with Juvenile Delinquency in Colleges. (2023, February 01). Edubirdie. Retrieved September 24, 2023, from
“Connection of Substance Abuse with Juvenile Delinquency in Colleges.” Edubirdie, 01 Feb. 2023,
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