More justice systems are turning to diversion programs and drug courts. These programs are used to get the help criminal defendants need with addiction.

Recovery vs. Punishment

The National Drug Court Resource Center defines drug courts as programs designed for individuals who have been arrested on charges related to substance use disorders. Individuals found guilty enter into long-term drug treatment programs. During the entire process, drug courts monitor the defendant’s progress.

Before drug courts, defendants were sentenced to lengthy prison terms. While in prison, appropriate access to mental health and substance abuse treatment was rare. This increased the risk that once released, he or she would turn back to drugs or alcohol.

Increasingly, society is beginning to accept that substance abuse and addiction are chronic diseases. The criminal justice system was never designed to treat mental illness or chronic diseases. Due to this, incarceration for disease-related actions rarely produced long-term change. This is why the justice system developed diversion programs.

In contrast to incarceration, drug courts and the diversion system promote recovery from addiction as a chronic illness. These programs help the defendant recover and work towards making healthy lifestyle changes.

How Do Drug Courts Work?

To be placed in a drug court program, someone must be charged with a criminal offense related to substance use. They must also have a substance use disorder and be likely to re-offend if not treated.

There are two ways that people enter drug court:

    1. In some jurisdictions, the defendant will plead guilty to their drug-related charges and then be sentenced. After, they are offered a drug treatment program. If they agree to participate, their sentences are suspended.
    2. Defendants that meet a set of eligibility requirements are diverted to the drug court program before legal proceedings are held. Rather than the sentence being deferred, as in the first type of program, in this model, the prosecution is deferred and eventually dropped.

Defendants must participate in the treatment program for several months or years. This requires submitting to frequent random drug testing and other court-ordered monitoring. They receive individual and group clinical treatment for their addiction and other co-occurring mental health disorders. They must also frequently appear in court as a way to monitor progress.

While in the program, participants are not allowed to use or possess drugs or alcohol. Many jurisdictions also forbid participants from entering casinos, bars, or grocery store liquor sections. They are also forbidden from purchasing alcohol. If the participant requires prescription medication, the prescriptions must be authorized by a diversion staff.

Many drug courts take a whole-person approach to treatment, creating an individualized treatment and case management planning. This means that participants are often connected to the services they need to be successful in the community: education, job training, employment services, community service opportunities, social and recreational opportunities, and community support.

Regardless of the model a jurisdiction uses, the end goal is the same: to help the defendant become clean and sober. Many drug court participants can even continue working during their treatment. This is not something that was possible when drug-related convictions meant serving prison time.

What Happens When Treatment Doesn’t Work?

The drug court system is based on a system of rewards for making progress in treatment and maintaining sobriety. In contrast, there are sanctions given if a defendant does not meet the program’s requirements. Sanctions for negative behaviors or minor program infractions might result in increased AA or NA meetings, curfews, additional community service hours, warnings from the judge, increased monitoring from the diversion staff, or short periods of time in jail.

Those that do not complete the program or fail to meet program requirements are required to complete their original jail or prison sentence.  Because the defendant has pleaded guilty, there is often not an opportunity to try for a reduced sentence or charge.

Are They Effective?

The National Institute of Justice recently completed a decade-long study on the effectiveness of drug courts. This study found that these programs had a significant positive effect on communities. This includes reduced recidivism, lower crime rates, and increased social productivity. In addition, communities that use these programs saw reduced costs for the criminal justice system. For each participant that completed the program, the community experienced an average net savings of over $6,700.

Furthermore, studies have shown that drug court graduates are more likely to be employed and less likely to be arrested again following treatment. Participants tend to have lower rates of substance use relapse, and for those that do relapse, the period of treatment required to regain sobriety is shorter than for non-participants. These improvements are seen even years past graduation from the program, demonstrating the program’s ability to promote long-term change.

The drug court system is proving to be a promising alternative to incarceration for those with substance use disorders and criminal convictions. Rather than facing a cycle of jail time and recidivism, those that complete the drug court process are more likely to stay clean and sober, avoid future legal troubles, maintain employment, and be active and contributing members of their community. Ultimately, these programs not only save the community money but also have the potential to save lives.

If you are struggling with substance abuse in the criminal justice system, make sure you talk about this option with a criminal attorney.




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