Legalese — What is Drug Court?

You may have heard about drug courts or DUI courts or mental health courts – what are they exactly?  These are not really separate courts, they are handled by existing courts and existing judges, but they are a specialized category of treatment courts that are designed to get at the root of problems and therefore reduce recidivism.

The research shows that they work.  Not everyone is a good candidate – treatment courts tend to work best with willing participants who are willing to put in the very hard work that it takes to succeed.  Someone who is only participating in order to avoid trouble is likely to get into more trouble in the end.

Basically, the way it works is this: let’s say someone is charged with possession of illegal drugs. Let’s call this person Chris. A conviction for possession of methamphetamines can have long term consequences in Chris’ life, in terms of employment, student loans, and jail time.  Chris knows that Chris has a problem, but doesn’t have the resources or wherewithal to do something about it.  Chris also doesn’t have a significant criminal history.

So Chris gets referred to drug court.  There are times – many times, in fact – that drug court is more difficult to get through than normal probation or jail time would be.  It is generally a two year program that requires intensive supervision from a probation officer, lots of drug testing, evaluations to see how ingrained your problem is, and treatment classes and counseling.  If Chris were in ‘normal’ probation, they might meet with their probation officer once every week or two and be done with it.  There’d be community service and fines to pay, but those could be done at odd times.

Treatment court is much more of a time commitment.  At first, Chris would meet with their probation officer several times a week.  They’d probably have a curfew with after hours checks.  Although Chris would avoid jail time, assuming the drug tests Chris took were all negative and they showed up for drug court every Friday (or whenever it was) they’d still be on a pretty tight leash.

That leash loosens as time goes on.  Chris may only have to go to drug court every other week, and then once a month.  The more drug tests Chris passes, the fewer they will get.  The more Chris cooperates with drug treatment, the less Chris will need treatment.

It’s usually a pretty intense program.  But it is research based, and reduces recidivism quite a bit more than a punishment model.  You can’t punish away addiction, you have to treat it.  But you can only treat it if the participant is willing to be treated, which requires recognition of a problem.  Same with mental health courts – there is a lot of crime that isn’t based on evil intent, but rather a function of someone’s mental health issues.  If you treat the mental health issues, then the crime goes away. 

The ultimate goal is a safer society.  We all benefit when the people who live among us are functional.  The research shows that yelling at dysfunction rarely works.  For the people who really do want to make a change in their lives but have no idea how to approach that change, treatment courts are the best way to get that done.  When it happens, everyone benefits. 

Nothing in this article should be construed as legal advice. It is being offered for informational purposes only.

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