Skip to Main ContentAn Honest Chance: Perspectives on Drug Courts

Why did you choose to enter drug court?


In Brooklyn, like the other focus group sites, most participants indicated that they chose treatment court to avoid going to jail or prison.

  • It’s a lot better than doing 17 years.

  • I would have been still upstate—to do 10 years and still the mark would be on your slate. . . . I did 2 years and no marks on me—I would never do the 10 years. And when the judge asked me in that court. . . .

  • Too many times a gun pointed at my head, cops come with guns and stick it to my head . . . do this, do that. . . . I was in criminal court so many times. The judge asked me if I was ready to take control of my life. . . . I didn’t. I went and got high. They came looking for me. Hauled me back. She asked me if I was ready, sent me to [Brooklyn Treatment Court]. She told me I was going to do time at Rikers. Whichever I wanted. I chose this way.

  • I see a lot of people come here just so they don’t have no jail time, just to beat your jail time. But you can’t ’cause you’re not gonna get nowhere.

  • Came to Brooklyn Treatment Court not to stop getting high, just didn’t want to go to jail.

  • I got caught selling in the building and they brought me here to the Brooklyn Treatment Court and I didn’t want to do it but I had no choice. I mean, I had a choice . . . jail or the program. So I took the program.

  • I use and abuse, I sold and stole. And that been my last go round. I attempted to make some fast money and I was gonna do something different, maybe, plans changed. During my transaction I was being videotaped by the police. . . . [The regular criminal court] sent me to an outpatient program which I thought was a joke . . . ’cause they sold drugs across the street. I messed up, spent more time here in the Brooklyn House. Woke me up. I started realizing that this is my life. . . . So when he came and offered me the program, I said, “Yeah, I’m down for it.”

At least one participant said that concerns for his family motivated him to enter the drug court:

  • I sold it, I smoke it, just to keep my habit up. I got caught with drugs by an undercover cop . . . so it was either go to jail or come here. I was raising my daughter, so I had a choice to make. Keep my family or otherwise lose everything.

Las Vegas

Las Vegas focus group participants also believed that most of their peers enter the program to avoid the negative consequences of being found guilty through the regular court process, which include records of convictions, incarceration, and family consequences:

  • Yes. I have a felony on me. I think that may be true to begin with because of course nobody wants to go to jail, so they chose drug court. And I think that . . . sometimes they come with that attitude but they don’t leave with that attitude, and you do learn here and you do sometimes feel good about yourself when you are clean.

  • The felony would stick to my record, you know, whereas I’m doing it like this, you know. This is the only thing on my record, period. No traffic ticket or anything, just this. You know, if I get finished with this then, you know, the felony is off my record. . . . If you don’t want anything else in your life, it cool, but it’s a lot you cannot do with a felony. There’s a lot you can’t do.

  • I’ve done a year in prison up in Carson City and my family couldn’t come to visit me. . . . Down here in this program, I can go to the movies, I can go bowling, I can do other things. It’s much better even though it’s inconvenient. It’s a good inconvenience.

  • No way. Some people are like that because they don’t have a family lifestyle. They’re used to living in the street. They don’t have nobody to look forward to, like me I got kids, I got children, you know. I got somebody to live for, like, a daughter. She’s 16 years old and a little boy that’s 6 years old.

  • Or your kids being taken away. See a lot of people are under the Child Protective Services. Yeah, . . . one dirty there and you lose your kids.

  • Men and women. Losing your children. Losing your family is another [reason].

  • I’m a divorced parent and if I was to be taken to court for child custody, I would lose my kids, if I had a felony on my record . . . if I had a chance to have it dismissed, and it gives you a fresh start.


Miami drug court participants expressed similar views about avoiding confinement:

  • Scary for me because I don’t want to go to jail. I was there for about 12 hours and I don’t want to go back to that place.

  • It was my choice to go to drug court ’cause they had gave me time served for the charge. I told them I had a problem being by myself, so I decide to go to drug court and also keep my record clean. . . . That’s why I’m here.

  • When I got arrested I was given the option . . . that I could just go to jail and I wouldn’t have to worry about it . . . but after being in the program, it was wiser, more positive, for me being in the program than just to go to jail and get out with nothing new. . . .

  • ’Cause I didn’t want to take the chance on the case. . . . I didn’t think I could beat it. . . . I didn’t want to take that risk.

  • It was an option for me. Yeah, the judge, he say, you can either put up my arm, come back, make a court date for you, and they might let you go, he said, but I would suggest the program for you. Then he explain how it work. I said how long I have to be in the program. He said 1 year. So I said okay I’ll go in the program and that’s why I’m here.

  • I took it because at first they wanted me to go to a stay-in program, y’know, in-house, and I didn’t want that . . . just like being locked up in jail, so I’d really deal with it outpatient.

  • And I never been locked up in my life and I don’t want this record so that’s why I’m going through this program; to help me clear my record because I never had a record before.


Portland focus group participants said that most of their peers were in treatment to “get clean.” However, in discussion, other incentives appeared to play powerful roles in motivating them to want to stick through treatment. The practically unanimous motivation was to avoid jail:

  • Everybody [is here to avoid jail].

  • If you don’t stay on the programs, then it goes back to the court systems and then you’re from square one again.

  • I think this is easier than being on probation because I feel on probation there is time when they can just send you to jail, and I’ve got kids to take care of.

Portland participants believed that another powerful motivation had to do with participants’ desire to maintain contact with or custody of their children:

  • A good majority are worried about keeping their children.

  • I would say a third of the people I run across.

  • My kids don’t live with me, but the point is if I had a felony on my record and my ex found out, it would be hell to pay seeing my kids. She would run with that.

San Bernardino

In San Bernardino, focus group participants clearly recognized the motivation to avoid jail, but also stressed family reasons for entering drug court:

  • I took drug court to get out.

  • The judge gives you the option. Do you want to go to my drug court, or do you want to go to prison? A lot of them take this as the easy way out so they can get back on the street, but like you said, it’s all a front, and then when they get done with the court, this system, they go right back out to the street.

  • When I first came here . . . the only reason I came was to stay out of jail.

  • Well, this was my last resort. They told me I was going to prison. But I’m glad I did this.

  • It was harder for me being in jail the 9 days [after my arrest] than it was the 9 months I’ve been here. Because I talked to my daughter every night I was in jail and she cried. That was the worst, that’s been the worst time since I been arrested, those 9 days that she cried.

  • I had just had a son 2 months before and I chose this ’cause I didn’t want to go to jail and miss that; it took a month or so and then I realized that I did have a problem.

  • I needed to get back home to be with my grandchildren.

  • Because I’m on the verge of losing my wife; she threw me the divorce papers and everything else.


Motivations among Seattle participants were similar:

  • Well, see, I was already clean—it was a charge that came up a year later so I just—just took it to stay out of jail.

  • To avoid prison.

  • Had to. I just had to. I took it as a saving grace—the methadone. I was going to get methadone but the procedure to get methadone is a pain in the a**. . . . If I could’ve found some legal way to get methadone, I would have done it years ago. It’s been wonderful—it allows me a life. So I took it for that reason.

  • They were offering me 60 days and I didn’t want it, so . . . to avoid jail.

  • Mine was to get out of prison. I was gonna be doin’ another 2 or 3 years in prison if I didn’t take drug court. . . .

  • Avoid the felony was a major enticement and a challenge.

Some Seattle participants entered the drug court because they needed treatment; for some, free methadone treatment in particular:

  • To save my life.

  • To stay alive. To live longer.

  • Life. I was dead.

  • I made the decision so I had a chance for me and my old lady, ’cause me and my girlfriend got busted together and we had a chance to get on the same program together—you know, to get on a methadone program and do this together, and I think the reason I did it was ’cause I wanted us to stay together.

  • I was just tired of hustling, you know. ’Cause heroin doesn’t give you any days off. You got to get up in the morning and get $20 or $30 to get your fix so I was just tired of working for it.

  • Free methadone.

More than one mentioned ties to family as the reason for choosing drug court:

  • love my children more than anything else in this world, that’s why.

Back to Participant Histories

An Honest Chance: Perspectives on Drug Courts April 2002