Sobriety courts are alternatives to the traditional criminal justice system. For people that are convicted of crimes related to drug and alcohol abuse, these programs offer intensive probation, including mandatory substance abuse treatment and close supervision, in lieu of jail time or a longer sentence. People who are unable to complete the program are given a traditional jail sentence. Sobriety courts are sometimes called DUI (driving under the influence) courts, DWI (driving while intoxicated) courts, or drug courts, Usually, people who participate in sobriety courts have had multiple criminal convictions as a result of drug or alcohol addiction.
For information on these crimes, see DUI: Laws Penalties & Sentencing, Felony DUI: Alcohol, Felony DUI: Drugs,DUI Laws & Penalties, Possession of a Controlled Substance: Drug Possession Laws, and Felony Drug Possession.
Sobriety courts are not available to all offenders. However, offenders who successfully complete sobriety court are significantly less likely to reoffend. Proponents believe that sobriety courts also help reduce drug and alcohol abuse, keep families together, and, in the long run, save money by keeping people out of prison and sober. There are some drawbacks. Sobriety court may be expensive for participants, although the cost of treatment and fees, as well as missed wages due to time in jail, are often just as high for offenders who do not go through sobriety court. There are not always treatment options that are available, affordable, and accessible to people. Sobriety courts are also costly to run.
While each sobriety court program is different, there are some common characteristics of sobriety courts. Most programs require participation for 12 to 24 months.
All sobriety courts have eligibility restrictions. The defendant must have a criminal history related to alcohol or substance abuse (such as multiple DUIs, drug possession, or minor in possession charges). The most common participant in a sobriety court is a person who has had two or more convictions for driving under the influence. Usually, people who have been convicted of drug trafficking or crimes involving violence or weapons are not eligible for sobriety court. Sobriety court may be strictly voluntary for eligible defendants, or all defendants who meet certain guidelines may be required to participate.
Participants are monitored closely. Daily drug and alcohol tests, weekly addiction counseling, and monthly meetings with probation officers or judges are not uncommon. Defendants may also be required to undergo random home visits. Of course, these requirements are in addition to other conditions of probation, such as attending work or school and doing community service. Successfully completing the program usually requires a high degree of commitment from the defendant.
Usually, defendants begin with the highest level of supervision (such as daily drug test) and, as they complete treatment, the court allows them greater privileges, including reduced fines and community service, less frequent meetings and drug testing, and limited driving permits, often with restrictions, such as ignition interlock or only being able to drive to work, school, treatment and court. If the person fails to make progress, he or she may have to return to a higher level of supervision or may be asked to leave the program.
Participating in sobriety court is not only intensive for offenders, but these programs also require a high level of coordination and cooperation among judges, prosecutors, defense attorneys, police and probation officers, social services agencies, and mental health and addiction treatment providers. Everyone, including the offender, works together to try and keep the person on track and out of jail. One of the hallmarks of sobriety court is that offenders are expected to take responsibility for themselves and are required to met regularly with judges and probation officers to report on their progress.
The court can also impose sanctions (punishments) on defendants who do not follow the rules as shown by testing positive for drugs or alcohol or missing meetings. Examples of possible sanctions include:
- increased drug and alcohol testing
- increased reporting to probation or court officers
- loss of driving privileges, and
- additional community service hours.
For severe violations, defendants may be sent to jail or even kicked out of the program, in which case the defendant will usually have to serve a jail term.
Getting Legal Help
If you are charged with a crime as a result of a drug or alcohol problem, you should talk to a local criminal defense attorney who practices where you live. An experienced attorney should be familiar with the programs available in your area and may be able to help you get into sobriety court so that you can get help, or keep you out of sobriety court if that is what you want. Every situation is different, but if you are charged with a crime having an experienced attorney on your side is always the best way to protect your rights and obtain a good outcome in your case.