How Drug Courts Work

Drug Courts: Who Gets to Participate?

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In 2010, Paris Hilton pleaded guilty to drug possession and obstructing an officer after her arrest for cocaine possession in Las Vegas. She was required to complete a drug abuse program in order to avoid jail and a felony conviction. Isaac Brekken/Getty Images

Since drug courts are administered by local municipalities and states, criteria for who participates varies. Generally speaking, according to Chris Deutsch, spokesman for the National Association of Drug Court Professionals, referrals to the drug court can come from the prosecutor, defense attorney and even the arresting officer.

Some drug courts limit participation based on the severity of the person's criminal history, while other courts allow only defendants charged with non-violent misdemeanors to participate. Still some drug courts have no limits at all regardless of a defendant's prior criminal history. For some courts, those arrested on both drug and non-drug charges (with the exception of violent felonies) are able to take advantage of the court, while some courts refuse to accept defendants charged with drug dealing [source: Urban Institute].

Many drug courts require defendants to sign contracts agreeing to the program's rules, and other courts insist clients agree to alternative sentences if the defendants fail to comply with the court's dictates. Unlike the traditional criminal court system, those who participate in drug courts are dealt with rather quickly, including drug treatment within days after an arrest [source: Urban Institute].

Depending on what the court directs, some defendants must enter inpatient treatment, while others are allowed to seek treatment as outpatients. Deutsch says every case is different and the courts do not want to "over resource" a client by providing them with services they might not need. On the other hand, the courts want to provide those defendants with all the services they do need to get clean.

And because getting clean and off drugs is the goal, breaking the rules is likely, especially failing drug tests. If a defendant does fail a test, they can be sanctioned by the court. Usually it is the judge who doles out the penalties, while some courts rely on program staff. Those who follow the rules are rewarded for such things as staying sober for one to three months, completing their education, finding a job and completing the requirements of a treatment program [source: Urban Institute]. The ultimate sanction, of course, is getting booted from the drug court for multiple violations and then going to jail.

"Jail should be used sparingly, but not as a response to relapse, but to non-compliance," Deutsch says.

Some drug courts demand that the defendants plead guilty before they are admitted. After they successfully complete the program a judge can defer that person's sentence. If that is the case, the judge can toss out the client's guilty plea and dismiss the case. If a judge does not defer the sentence, the person is placed on probation until they graduate. Some courts, however, do not dismiss charges, while others reduce charges. It can take as long as two years for a client to graduate the program, while some can do it within 12 months [source: Urban Institute].