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ARTICLE OVERVIEW: A complete guide to California drug courts. We review eligibility requirements, how to get started, and what happens when you complete the program. A detailed explanation of the legal process here.


Read the full article written by Lee Weber and published on addictionblog.com

What is a Drug Court?

California drug courts are problem-solving courts specially designed as an alternative to traditional criminal justice prosecution. These courts are mainly set up for non-violent, substance-related offenses.

In short, drug courts put treatment and rehabilitation ahead of punishment.

The main idea behind drug courts is that crime and addiction can be treated. The traditional approach of punishment has proven ineffective, otherwise, the system would have stopped it a long time ago.

Compared to incarceration, addiction treatment improves long-term outcomes because it addresses the root cause of drug-related crime.

Treatment improves a person’s chances of reintegrating into the community and becoming a productive member of society. [1]

In fact, there are numerous benefits of drug courts. Some of them include:

  • Promoting long-term recovery
  • Reducing crime
  • Reducing drug and alcohol use
  • Reunifying families
  • Saving tax money

On average, treatment costs for California drug courts range from $900 to $1,600. Compared to an average cost of $5,000 per person for a minimum period of incarceration, perhaps you’ll agree that this seems to make economic and judicial sense. [2]

If you or a loved one has recently been arrested or charged with a drug-related crime in California, we are here to let you know that treatment works!

California’s Drug Court History

The concept of drug courts spread across the country in the early ’90s. Getting treatment is a cost-effective and beneficial option for people who get into legal trouble. These courts offer more targeted help that gets at the root cause of the issue. But when did the state first begin offering drug courts?

California’s first adult drug court began in Alameda County in 1991. In 1995, California’s first juvenile offender drug court began hearing cases in Tulare County. In 1998, The Department of Alcohol and Drug Programs started supporting the development of drug courts in California.

California drug courts are much less formal than traditional courts. They are much more loosely structured, giving each court some flexibility as to how it will run. There is an ongoing dialogue between the judge, prosecutor, defense attorney, and defendant. The focus is on people rather than punishment. [3]

California is committed to the concept that alcohol and drug treatment are preferable to the incarceration of nonviolent drug offenders. Indeed, the effectiveness of the drug courts has been proven by numerous scientific studies. It’s been shown to reduce re-arrest rates, lower costs and provide better treatment outcomes. It is not just clients who benefit from drug courts… but American society as a whole. [4] [5]

Drug Court Requirements and Eligibility in California

Each drug court in California has its own eligibility and exclusion requirements, so, when defining drug court eligibility, it’s better to first define who is not eligible to participate in a drug court. In general, you are not eligible if you have:

  • A prior conviction for a violent crime.
  • Been charged with a DUI and resulting in serious injury.
  • Been charged with a crime involving possession of a firearm.
  • Been charged with a violent offense.
  • been charged with arson or sex crimes.
  • Been charged with drug possession with intent to sell.
  • Been charged with drug manufacturing or trafficking.
  • Refused treatment.
  • An unlawful presence within the United States.

Additionally, you must be diagnosed with addiction in order to go through drug court. This makes sense. Plus, you must be eligible for probation in order to participate. Since the program takes place out of custody, you must be on probation in order to attend activities. Finally, you must not be under the active deportation process.

What Laws Support These Guidelines?

Drug court programs are legally authorized by California Penal Code 1000.5 PC. [6] According to this code, defendants are referred to drug court by written agreement of a judge, the prosecutor, and the public defender.  Graduation requirements vary but usually involve the completion of educational and job training requirements with addiction treatment. Successful completion of a drug court program can result in a dismissal of the drug charges.

In terms of eligibility, the most important criteria are that California drug courts are designed to treat non-violent drug-using offenders whose criminal history is related to drug abuse and addiction.

The State of California has authored innovative legislature to back up the idea. Proposition 36, also known as the Substance Abuse and Crime Prevention Act, is a mandatory diversion program for those who qualify. Its main goal was to allow first and second-time, nonviolent offenders to get treatment rather than go to jail. [7]

Getting Started

Currently, California has over 200 drug courts within its 58 counties. [3] The different types of Collaborative Justice Courts in California include:

  • Adult Drug Court
  • Back on TRAC
  • DUI/DWI Courts
  • Family Dependency Drug Court
  • Federal District Drug Court
  • Homeless Courts
  • Juvenile Drug Courts
  • Mental Health Courts
  • Re-Entry Courts
  • Tribal Healing to Wellness Courts
  • Veterans’ Treatment Court

Drug Courts in California work according to certain models. There are four ways to enroll in a drug court program. Since each drug court in California has different criteria and each case is unique, it’s best to consult an attorney to learn more about how you can enroll in a drug court program as an alternative sentence. The main ways you can request participation in a CA drug court include:

  1. The pre-plea model allows drug possession offenders a stay of prosecution if they participate in a treatment supervised by the court.
  2. Post-plea models state that a defendant has to enter a guilty plea before entering treatment. The treatment lasts from nine months to three years.
  3. The post-adjudication model gives opportunity drug offenders to re-enter treatment after their conviction. But first, the convicted person has to serve the sentence. If the case is referred to drug court following a conviction at a jury trial, the trial judge has the option of retaining jurisdiction of the case or referring it to a calendar court.
  4. The civil model allows individuals to enter treatment as a condition of retaining or regaining custody of a child or children. Failure to complete the program can result in permanent loss of custody.

So, what’s the process like?

STEP 1: If you are eligible for a drug court, a judge will order a screening. This will be conducted by the Program Manager or Therapist involved in the program. The screening takes place in the form of an interview and it will usually last for an hour.

STEP 2: After the screening, a multidisciplinary team will assess your record and personal history. This usually happens the same week or the week following the assessment. Screening and assessment ensure that each participant receives appropriate substance abuse disorder treatment services and community-based support.

STEP 3: If it is decided that you will be accepted into the program, it is very likely that you will be placed in residential treatment or sober living program. You will be expected to complete the course of recommended treatment.

STEP 4: Ongoing activities may be set up by drug court judges for you during and after rehab. You may need to attend ongoing counseling sessions, for example. Or, you may need to attend support group meetings. Compliance ensures success. Follow the drug court plan … and you’re on your way to a new life!

STEP 5: Successful completion of a program entitles you to a dismissal of the related charges.

The Process

Drug Court is a four-phase program that usually lasts from 6 to 24 months. n California, drug courts usually implement a multi-phased treatment process. You will move from one phase to the next when you complete the requirements of the phase and make progress in your recovery. Poor performance during any phase may result in going back to a previous phase with more intensive monitoring and restrictions.

In general, drug court programs in CA are divided into four phases. If you are a drug court participant in California you must complete all these phases in order to qualify for dismissal of charges and a clean legal record.

1. Stabilization Phase. This first stage of treatment focuses on your stabilization. The stabilization phase may include a period of detox, psychosocial and physical assessment and development of treatment plan. During this phase, you will have to attend court once a week.

2. Intensive Treatment Phase. Abstinence from drugs and alcohol as a primary focus. This phase typically involves intensive individual and group counseling, attend weekly AA and NA meetings. Usually, participants attend court twice a week.

3. Aftercare Review Interview Phase: You will continue with group therapy and individual counseling, and you will still have to attend support group meetings. Typically, during this phase, you will be interviewed by the Drug Court team. The interview will determine if you are ready to move to the last phase which is the aftercare. You are required to make monthly court appearances.

4. Transition Phase. This phase focuses on the planning necessary to transition you out of the drug court, and relapse prevention strategies. The transition phase may emphasize social reintegration, employment and education, housing services, and other aftercare activities. You will have to attend court once a month.


When the court orders someone to attend rehab, the next step is to gather a treatment team. The treatment team consists of a judge, attorneys, case managers, health care providers, and therapists. These professionals all work with the offender to ensure an effective treatment plan, and also to make sure the offender is complying with the court orders. Team members provide regular communication, encouragement, and support for the offender. But drug court also extends support to their friends and family members throughout the hearings, therapy, and discharge.

Drug court participants in CA should be able to access to a continuum of treatment and rehab services. [8] Treatment services should include:

  • Aftercare services
  • Attendance at support group meetings
  • Detox
  • Individual and group counseling
  • Inpatient or outpatient rehab
  • Mandatory drug tests
  • Medications
  • Regular appearances before the court

You will be required to pay for the treatment, and you can choose where you want to be treated. Insurance may pay for all or part of a treatment program, and some facilities offer reduced or subsidized payments for qualifying individuals.

The severity of your addiction and your dedication will determine your recovery time. However, it is expected that most participants should be able to successfully complete the treatment program after 10 to 24 months. If you cooperate with the court you can turn this situation at your advantage, your probation terminated or charges dismissed.


After enrollment in a drug court program, your progress will be closely monitored by the court. You are expected to be on time, to show up to and complete drug tests. You are also required to attend all group sessions and court dates. You will be asked to be honest.

In other words, when you go through a drug court in CA, you are held accountable for your progress. You are expected to comply with the court’s orders and respect the court.

In order to encourage compliance, behavioral changes and adherence with treatment, the court will use sanctions and incentives. Rewards for compliant behavior can include:

  • Certificate of graduation
  • Extended curfew
  • Gift certificates
  • Praise by the court or judge
  • Promotion to the next phase
  • Sobriety tokens
  • Termination of probation

Conversely, sanctions for non-compliance may include: writing a letter to the court or to your case manager, coming to court more often, community service, time in jail, termination from drug court. Although there is no set number of violations that result in termination, persistent noncompliance is not tolerated. If you are terminated from the program, you will be sent back to court for sentencing.

Still, most people successfully complete all phases of treatment.  In some cases, probation may be terminated at the end of the program. In other cases, you must successfully complete the full three years of probation after participation.

California Drug Court Statistics

Drug courts are generally thought to be more effective than routine criminal justice case-processing at reducing rates of recidivism and drug use among offenders. There have been many successes in California Drug Court programs.

Participants have remained off of drugs, stayed out of the criminal justice system, obtained their driver’s licenses, become employed, gone back to school, received vocational training and started their own businesses, and gained or regained custody of their children.

SO, what are the number say about the effectiveness of drug courts? The data taken from the Collaborative Courts 2016 Annual Report by the County of Orange shows that:

    • The adult and juvenile programs have saved more than $120.6 million through the avoidance of more than 852,848 custody bed days.
    • The re-arrest rate for Drug Court graduates, three years after graduation, is 28.15% for any crime, compared with a re-arrest rate for comparable non-participants of 74%.
    • The Drug Court program avoided 28,637 jail and prison bed days prior to the application of custody credits, which were stayed pending graduation in 2016— which translates to a cost savings of $4,196,179.
    • Two drug-free babies were born to women while they were participating in Drug Court in 2016, bringing the cumulative total to 153 drug-free babies born since the inception of the program.
    • Participants performed 1,275 hours of community service in 2016.
    • During the year, 63 participants graduated from the Drug Court program, free of addiction and employed or pursuing educational goals. [9]

Nationwide, the numbers show that drug courts reduce crime by an average of 8% to 26%, with most estimates from 9% to 14%. Well-functioning drug courts reduce crime rates by 35% and the effects last at least 3 years.

Additionally, the average recidivism rate for those who complete Drug Court is between 4% and 29%, compared to 48% for those who do not participate in a Drug Court program.

Finally, for every $1,000 invested in adult drug courts, communities reaped approximately $2 to $4 in benefits, totaling roughly $3,000 to $12,000 per participant. [10]

These numbers show the effectiveness and importance of drug courts:

  • Drug courts can save lives.
  • Drug courts help individuals.
  • Drug courts heal our society.
  • Completing California Drug Court

You graduate from drug court when you complete all four phases of the program. You must be at least 90 consecutive days clean and sober. Except in unusual circumstances as determined by the judge, a participant who graduates after less than nine months in the program will remain on probation until the expiration of the nine-month period.

But before you leave supervision, the court wants you to have a strong recovery support system. This includes employment and stable housing. Then, graduation is a time to celebrate your accomplishments! You may invite your family and friends to join you at your drug court graduation. It’s often a life-changing moment.

What Happens Next?

If you successfully complete a Drug Court program in California:

  • Your probation may be terminated early.
  • Your charges may be reduced.
  • Your case may be dismissed.

Also, if you are involved in a child custody case, you may get your child back.

Successful completion will give you the tools to become contributing members of society and your community.

Your Questions

If you still have questions about California’s drug court system, we encourage you to leave a question in the comments section below. We’ll try to respond to you promptly and personally.

Reference Sources: [1] James E. Lessenger / Glade F. Roper (eds.) Drug Courts: A New Approach to Treatment and Rehabilitation
[2] California Department of Alcohol and Drug Programs – Drug Courts Overview.
[3] California Courts: Drug Courts
[4] HHS: Drug Court Effectiveness: A Review of California Evaluation Reports, 1995–1999
[5] National Institute of Justice: Do Drug Courts Work? Findings from Drug Court Research
[6] California Legislative Information: California Penal Code 1000.5 PC
[7] Proposition 36 Drug Treatment Diversion Program. Initiative Statute
[8] California Courts: 2019 California Rules of Court
[9] Superior Court of California County of Orange: 2016 Annual Report
[10] Drug Courts: National Perspective
Superior Court of California: County of San Diego: Drug Court Process
Superior Court of California: Drug Court Participant Handbook

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