How Do Drug Courts and Other Treatment Courts Work?

Learn how drug, DUI, mental health, and veterans courts work to treat offenders, not punish them.

By , Attorney · Mitchell Hamline School of Law
Updated March 22, 2024

Drug courts and other treatment courts offer alternatives to the traditional criminal justice system. These court programs focus on the offender to address the cause of their criminal behavior, rather than simply mete out a punishment. Offenders with untreated substance abuse or mental health issues often end up in and out of the system multiple times. Treatment courts aim to stop this revolving door.

Getting into a treatment court gives the offender a chance to avoid some of the harshest criminal consequences and get help. A participant generally avoids lengthy incarceration and maybe even a conviction. But it takes hard work, time, and dedication—it's certainly not a get-out-of-jail-free card.

Read on to learn more about treatment courts, how they work, the various types, and what to expect as a participant.

What Is a Treatment Court?

Treatment courts are specialized courts that break away from the traditional criminal justice system to provide intensive, specialized supervision of offenders. Instead of cycling offenders through the system, treatment court takes a collaborative approach to address underlying issues that are likely leading to criminal behavior, such as substance abuse, mental health issues, or behavioral health issues. Some states refer to these courts as problem-solving courts, specialty courts, or sobriety courts (among other names).

Types of Treatment Courts

The most common treatment courts are discussed below and include drug courts, DUI or DWI courts, mental health courts, and veterans courts. A jurisdiction might have different courts for adult and juvenile offenders, such as adult drug court and juvenile drug court.

Do Treatment Courts Work?

Studies consistently show that these courts significantly reduce recidivism (re-offense) rates and are more cost-effective than traditional court models. Instead of punishment (straight-up jail or prison time), these courts offer offenders treatment for addiction or mental health issues to increase the likelihood they will succeed in the community and not return to their criminal behaviors. Treatment courts, however, are time- and resource-intensive and require accountability and commitment from offenders.

What Are the Drawbacks to Treatment Court?

Treatment court models require a high level of commitment from participants. Instead of two or three court appearances, a participant will be expected to show up weekly or monthly for a year or longer. They must check in with probation, attend treatment, submit to frequent drug or alcohol testing, stay away from bad actors, and comply with other rules. There might be fees or costs associated with the program.

The time commitment can be challenging for someone trying to work, attend school, or take care of children or family members. On the flip side, it might be easier to find a few hours a week to comply with a treatment court program than to be stuck in jail or prison. These are all issues a defendant should discuss with their attorney.

How to Find a Treatment Court

Treatment courts are statewide or local programs. Most urban areas have multiple treatment courts, but finding them in less populated areas can be more difficult. To find treatment courts in your area, talk to your lawyer. You can also look on the court website where you will be appearing or on the prosecuting attorney's website. Run searches for the different types of treatment courts, along with the name of the jurisdiction. For instance, try searching for "drug courts in California," or "DUI courts in Houston, Texas," or "mental health courts in Broward County."

What Is Drug Court?

Drug courts were the first type of treatment courts. They've been around since the late ‘80s and early ‘90s. Drug courts serve as a model for most other treatment courts. (Refer to this section for the workings of other treatment courts: DUI/DWI courts, mental health courts, and veterans courts.)

How Do Drug Courts Work?

Drug court models differ but generally take the following approach:

  • they integrate substance abuse (drug or alcohol) treatment with the criminal system
  • the criminal justice participants—judge, prosecutor, defense attorney, probation, social services, and treatment provider—work together as a team to monitor the participant's treatment progress, and
  • the participant must agree to intensive supervision (frequent court appearances and drug testing), a treatment plan, and sanctions for noncompliance.

Depending on the participant and program, drug court typically takes 12 to 24 months to complete. A person who enters drug court will generally avoid a lengthy jail or prison sentence and, instead, receive treatment, supervision, and support.

Who Is Eligible for Drug Court?

Every jurisdiction has different eligibility rules. Usually, drug courts target repeat, nonviolent offenders with documented substance abuse issues. Having certain prior convictions may disqualify a person, such as drug sales or trafficking, violent offenses, or sex offenses.

Participation in drug court is voluntary. But not everyone is cut out for this intensive program. The court will often have an application or referral process. An applicant goes through a screening process and must accept all the terms and conditions of the drug court process. Program or supervision fees may apply.

What Does Drug Court Look Like?

Many drug courts work in phases. The first phase involves the most intensive supervision. Judicial supervision and oversight gradually decrease as the participant moves through the phases. During the first few weeks or months of drug court, a participant might need to show up at court every week and be subject to random drug tests. A probation officer often monitors the participant's compliance with treatment appointments, court appearances, and drug testing.

At drug court sessions, a participant will usually talk to the judge in front of other drug court participants. Typically, the judge and the drug court team have already reviewed the probation report and decided what measures to take. A participant who's meeting expectations can expect various incentives to stay on track, while a participant who's violated the agreement terms can expect swift sanctions to get back on track.

Sanctions for noncompliance might include more frequent drug tests or court appearances, a short jail stint, community service hours, required use of a SCRAM (alcohol monitoring) bracelet, or random home visits by probation or law enforcement.

Incentives. The drug court model also works with incentives for compliance. A participant who complies with their program might move to the next phase that requires less frequent court appearances and drug testing. Other incentives might include fishbowl drawings for prizes, tokens for achievements, bus passes, gift cards, or movie tickets.

Graduation. Once a participant completes drug court, there is usually a graduation ceremony that family, friends, and other participants can attend.

What Happens to the Criminal Charges After Completing Drug Court?

For successful participants, completing drug court means avoiding time behind bars, getting sober, learning new life skills, and finding treatment and support in the community.

The exact outcome of the criminal case will depend on the participant's original charges, prior convictions, and the terms of the drug court contract. But, that said, a graduate of drug court will generally avoid the most negative legal consequences of a conviction. For instance, the judge might:

  • reduce or dismiss the original charges
  • vacate a guilty plea, or
  • discharge the case and seal the records.

Those who leave or get kicked out of drug court will have to face the consequences of their original sentence, which might be prison, jail, probation, fines, fees, and restitution.

What Is DUI or DWI Court?

DUI or DWI courts follow the drug court model. DUI courts generally serve offenders who have been repeatedly charged with impaired driving and have substance abuse problems. Participants in DUI court will need to agree to abstinence from alcohol and drugs, alcohol monitoring and drug tests, frequent court appearances, and participation in treatment.

A primary issue in DUI court involves transportation. Because many repeat DUI offenders have lost their driver's licenses, they can't drive to court or required appointments or meetings. A DUI court might assist the participant in solving transportation barriers through transit passes, ride shares, or restricted licenses, such as ignition interlock licenses.

Check out What Is Drug Court? for more details.

What Is Mental Health Court?

Also modeled after drug courts, mental health courts serve individuals in the criminal system who have severe or persistent mental health issues. Mental health issues, like substance abuse, can lead to criminal behavior. These courts seek to intervene and stop the recidivism cycle by providing individualized treatment plans combined with judicial supervision and support.

Mental health courts can't cure a participant. Rather, they aim to connect the individual to services and treatment that effectively address their mental health and criminal behaviors. The goal is to provide a sustainable treatment plan that the participant can manage ongoing. As part of the plan, mental health court often connects the participant to "wrap-around" services—such as job training, housing, education, or life skills—to help the participant succeed in and out of court.

Check out What Is Drug Court? for more details.

What Is Veterans Court?

Veterans courts are one of the newest treatment courts, although they've existed since the mid to late 2000s. Veterans courts represent a hybrid between drug courts and mental health courts. They focus on military members or veterans who are cycling through the criminal system due to untreated mental health or behavioral health issues, which typically stem from combat and other military service.

Veterans and military members suffer from high rates of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), traumatic brain injury (TBI), suicidal tendencies, and substance abuse. Each veteran will have different needs. In veterans court, the participant will gain access to resources to address their specific needs, whether it's addiction, mental health, or both. A participant might also need assistance with housing, medical problems, family troubles, domestic violence, or unemployment.

Veterans courts generally coordinate with the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA). Having VA assistance helps with the coordination of federal benefits and programs.

Check out What Is Drug Court? for more details.

Getting Legal Help

If you believe your criminal troubles stem from addiction or mental health issues, consider checking out treatment courts available in your area. Talk to your criminal defense attorney to learn whether these types of court programs are available, what being in a treatment court requires, and what benefits or drawbacks there might be.

Talk to a Defense attorney
We've helped 95 clients find attorneys today.
There was a problem with the submission. Please refresh the page and try again
Full Name is required
Email is required
Please enter a valid Email
Phone Number is required
Please enter a valid Phone Number
Zip Code is required
Please add a valid Zip Code
Please enter a valid Case Description
Description is required

How It Works

  1. Briefly tell us about your case
  2. Provide your contact information
  3. Choose attorneys to contact you