How Do Sobriety and Drug Courts Work?

How drug and DUI courts can keep you out of jail and get you treatment for substance abuse issues.

By , Attorney (UC Berkeley School of Law)
Updated October 21, 2020

Sobriety and drug courts (sometimes also called "DUI court") are alternatives to the traditional criminal justice system. These programs are for eligible offenders who are convicted of crimes related to drug and alcohol abuse such as driving under the influence (DUI) and normally involve intensive probation, including mandatory substance abuse treatment and close supervision, in lieu of excessive jail time.

Purposes of Sobriety Court and Drawbacks for Participants

Usually, people who participate in sobriety courts have had multiple criminal convictions as a result of drug or alcohol addiction. The goal of sobriety, drug, and DUI courts is to address the underlying substance abuse issues that are causing the person to get into trouble.

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 the criminal justice system.

However, from the point of view of participants, there might be some drawbacks. Sobriety court can be expensive for participants, and these programs usually involved intense supervision, drug and alcohol testing, drug and alcohol treatment, and a long-term commitment. For people who aren't ready to get clean and sober, the conditions of sobriety court might not be doable.

While each sobriety court program is different, they share some common characteristics and typically require participation for 12 to 24 months.

Eligibility Restrictions for Sobriety Court

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). Most sobriety courts restrict participation to offenders who have one or more prior drug- or alcohol-related convictions. DUI courts sometimes accept only offenders with one or more prior DUI convictions.

Usually, people who have been convicted of drug trafficking or crimes involving violence or weapons are ineligible for sobriety court. Sobriety court may be strictly voluntary for eligible defendants, or all defendants who meet certain guidelines may be required to participate.

Strict Monitoring and Drug and Alcohol Testing

Sobriety court participants are subject to intensive supervision and monitoring. Daily drug and alcohol tests (possibly through continuous monitoring), weekly addiction counseling, and monthly meetings with probation officers or judges are common. Defendants might also be required to undergo random home visits from a probation officer. Of course, these requirements are in addition to other conditions of probation, such as attending work or school and doing community service. Successful completion of sobriety, drug, and DUI court programs usually requires a high degree of commitment from the defendant.

Phased Substance Abuse Treatment

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.

Cooperative Approach

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 meet 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:

  • reprimands
  • 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. 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.

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