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If you’re charged with a non-violent drug or alcohol related crime, there’s a reasonable chance that you can avoid prison by agreeing to get addiction treatment instead.

Rules vary by jurisdiction, but in general, the three basic ways you can get treatment instead of jail are:

  1. The judge in a conventional criminal court may sentence you to some form of addiction treatment as a part of your sentence
  2. Your lawyer may work out a deal with the prosecutor prior to your appearing in court so that you can complete a certain period of treatment as part or all of your punishment
  3. You may have the opportunity to appear in drug court, instead of a conventional adult criminal court

Are You Eligible? Can You Avoid Prison by Getting Addiction Treatment Instead?

Maybe... - Alternative sentencing laws vary by jurisdiction, but you should talk to your lawyer about the possibility of getting diverted to treatment instead of jail, especially if:

  • This is your first or second offense and you have no history of violence or sexual assault
  • You are a non violent offender and haven’t committed a sexual offense
  • You’ve been arrested on a drugs crime, were intoxicated or high when you committed your crime or your addiction to drugs or alcohol contributed to your committing of a crime.
  • You are addicted to drugs or alcohol
  • You are willing and able to comply with any mandated treatment
  • You are willing to plead guilty to your crime (in many states, after successfully completing court mandated treatment your criminal record is expunged)

What’s a Drug Court?

You may also be given the option of appearing in a drug court, rather than a conventional adult criminal court.

Within the justice system, drug courts operate to divert appropriate offenders out of the prison track and into addiction treatment. As of May 2012, there were more than 2,600 drug courts in operation in America.1

You cannot be forced to participate in drug court (participation is voluntary) but if you decide to participate you will have to plead guilty to your crime and agree to participate in an addiction treatment program. Some common components of a drug court sentence include:

  • A sentence length of between 1 and 2 years
  • Mandatory treatment participation
  • No drug or alcohol use
  • Frequent random drug and alcohol testing
  • Frequent court appearances for progress updates
  • Making restitution to victims (if any) by community service or payment
  • Rewards for program compliance and sanctions for infractions, like failed drug tests (a weekend in jail, for example.)2

Drug court can keep you out of prison, but only if you live-up to your end of the bargain.

Can Forced Treatment Really Work? Don’t You Have to WANT to Quit?

Despite the popular belief that you must hit rock bottom before you can start to get better, people forced into treatment programs have similar outcomes to people who enter into treatment for other reasons.

For example: A California study on methamphetamine users found that both people coerced into treatment by the criminal justice system and people entering into treatment of their own accord had similar rates of methamphetamine use post treatment, similar rates of total abstinence post treatment and similar overall recovery rates at 24 months post treatment.

Interestingly, one factor that affected the success rates of both the coerced and voluntary treatment seekers was duration of treatment. Universally, people who stayed in treatment for longer periods had better outcomes than people who finished with treatment more quickly.3

Why Does Coerced Treatment Work Just as Well?

It seems like you’d have to want treatment to have any hope of benefiting from it – after all, though the courts can make you listen, they can’t force you to really change your thinking. So why does it work then?

No one knows for sure, but a common explanation is that though you might not want treatment at the beginning, you might also change your tune as you progress through the program, learn more, make gains and feel better and start to see that a life of recovery is not only possible – it’s desirable.  

Sometimes it’s just hard to see the possibility of a better future through the foggy thinking of drug or alcohol addiction.

In any case, one thing you can be sure of is that addiction treatment works a whole lot better than prison to reduce drug and alcohol use. Compared to non treated offenders, criminal justice clients who completed a drug court imposed sentence:

  • Failed fewer drug tests (29% vs. 46%)
  • Were less likely to get rearrested (52% vs. 62%)

Where Can I Find a Treatment Program that Accepts Court Ordered Clients?

To find out which facilities can treat court ordered clients:

  1. Visit the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration’s (SAMHSA) state by state treatment locator
  2. Choose your state from the drop down menu
  3. Call the contact phone number you find or follow a link to visit your state’s substance abuse website

How Much Is Court Ordered Substance Abuse Treatment Going to Cost?

In virtually all cases, you are responsible for finding and funding your court ordered treatment.

The costs can vary greatly, depending on the type of treatment you need and on facility and program features and amenities.

A one day DUI course might cost a couple of hundred dollars, a multi-month intensive outpatient program a few or more thousand dollars and a 28 day residential rehab from $7,000 on the low end to a private care average of about $19,000 (and for an exclusive private facility, quite a bit more than this.)4

If you cannot afford to pay the full price of treatment you can likely find an approved facility that will offer treatment on a sliding payment scale that is related to your income and ability to pay for services.

To search for affordable care, visit SAMHSA’s treatment locator and search for treatment in your state by your area code. When you define your search, make sure to click on the required button for criminal justice clients and for treatment offered on a sliding scale basis.*

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Page last updated Sep 01, 2014

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