Skip to Main ContentAn Honest Chance: Perspectives on Drug Courts

What do you think the purpose of drug court is?


Brooklyn Treatment Court participants offered what turned out to be fairly common explanations of what they understood as the purpose of the drug court, basically seeing the drug court as an opportunity or another chance:

  • Brooklyn Treatment Program is there to help you get on with your life and try to get yourself together. . . . So they say, well listen, I give you another chance. I’m gonna send you to detox. It was on me to get high when I walked out. Then they gave me another chance—to go into a residential—so they really didn’t do anything bad to anybody—they really just try to help you be a human being, a successful person in society, to do what you had to to do. If you didn’t come back to treatment court, you was going to go to jail and experience Rikers Island to see if you like that. So I don’t really have anything bad to say. . . .

  • Well, I think the purpose of it to me . . . is that they tell you, it’s like, they gonna give you an opportunity to live or die. It’s just as simple as that to me. It’s either you want to live or you’re gonna die. And they give you all the ways to see either you’re gonna live or you’re gonna die. That’s it.

  • This is just to help people get on the right track.

  • I believe the purpose of the court is to help the community, ’cause I’m an individual in that community. . . . They don’t see us a bad people; they see us as good people doing bad things and they’re just trying to help the individual so they can grow. . . . It helps the community itself; and we all try to help each other.

  • I was just going through the motions. I didn’t even know how to stop. I couldn’t stop even if I wanted to stop. I was just like on automatic pilot. Up, smoke, just like that, same thing . . . getting caught up in something . . . and breaking that cycle, it gave me an opportunity to know where to go. . . . A lot of times you don’t really know where to go or how to start to get yourself a break. Once you get caught up in that mode, you can’t get out of that mode. It’s like a merry-go-round. But they gave me an opportunity to say, stop and look back at whatcha doin’ and where you goin’. Now you have an opportunity—you got the positive side . . . and it’s all on you. I wanted to do it for such a long time but I just didn’t know how.

  • I think the purpose of the treatment court is to give you a second chance at living. To get your life back together. . . . [Brooklyn Treatment Court] gave you the opportunity to change your life and get your life back together.

  • For me it’s a rehabilitation. Give me an opportunity to pick myself up and start over.

  • I believe . . . it gives you an opportunity for a second chance. . . . It gives you a choice.

  • An opportunity to turn things around.

Las Vegas

Las Vegas focus group participants had widely varying views on what the purpose of the drug court was and how they regarded the experience. Most participants agreed that the main purpose of the drug court was to help people and, in this aim, that it represented a very different criminal justice experience for them. Common responses to the question asking them to explain what they believed the purpose of the drug court was included teaching people how to “get off drugs,” getting people away from a lifestyle of drugs and crime, avoiding incarceration, and giving people an “honest chance.”

  • I think it honestly represents a chance, and somebody who never even dreamed about turning around, okay, they can. . . .

  • I think when the program started the intentions were good. . . .

  • You know something, I was hiding out using it for [keeping me] out of the pen. But it also made me aware. I didn’t think I had a problem. I thought everything was okay. This made me look back and say, “Hey, I was messing up.”

  • I think the main purpose for drug court is that most of the crime stems basically from drugs and alcohol and if they can get them to realize that in the process of the drug court . . . the more people that come out and decide to stay straight, the less crime it could end up being. . . .

  • I think it’s to teach someone how to get off drugs and not just put them in jail.

Some participants had different, more cynical ideas about the purpose of a drug court. One participant said that the drug court is the government’s way of making money:

  • In my opinion just to get money for the State . . . by having you pay every week.

Another said that the drug court concept was:

  • The government’s way of dealing with the inability to create more prison space.


Miami participants saw the drug court as a very helpful experience:

  • To help you out . . . to come clean . . . and also the purpose of it is to clear your record.

  • To become clean and show us that there is a better life than drugs. . . . We don’t need that. I have two children and they know I come here . . . a 13-year-old and an 8-year-old. . . . I tell them very flat and open, my children. They know why I come here, they know what I do for a living. That’s the way it is and I feel good coming here.

  • To better yourself as a person, right? Just like, I mean, what he said, you come here to keep clean, aright, to better yourself as a person. To make you see beyond what you’ve been doing.

  • I think also what they’re saying but also to help people . . . the people who have really been on drugs . . . to make sound decisions and I think they really want to help them get back on the right tract so they can live normal productive lives and get their priorities straight as far as being aware of themselves and what they want in life because your priorities change once you’re off those drugs and you start changing, your priorities start changing and you change and I think that what they want. They want us to change, to get us back to normal, back on track and live productive normal lives.

  • To keep me off of drugs.

One participant saw the drug court as a result of crowded jails:

  • One of the reasons they started is ’cause they didn’t have enough beds in jail. . . . So there was a bed shortage in the jails. That’s why we first started it.


Portland participants offered a variety of opinions about the goals of the Portland drug court. Some felt that the program was beneficial since it provided rules and guidelines for behavior and supervision. One participant said that the drug court helped him/her set priorities in his/her life. Another said that the drug court provided structure to his/her life:

  • I think the drug court really is all about, or what it is for me, was to show me that I had an opportunity to get my life together by making some serious behavioral changes. . . .

  • The court is giving you the rules and parameters of behavior while the facilitators are helping you to live up to that standard.

  • For me, it gave me a sense of getting my priorities back in mind and being structured enough to do what I’m supposed to do.

  • It gives me a reality check. I had been into drugs so long, so hard, I had not even slowed down to see where I was standing. I was [committing] suicide.

Other participants said that they believed the purpose of the drug court was to solve a person’s addiction problem:

  • I think it’s an attempt to get people out of the system by solving a person’s addiction problem, out of the justice system, some of the crimes are related to drugs. .

  • They said to me, okay, you’ve been using drugs, you finally got caught, we’re not just going to slap you on the hand, we’re going to keep you here for a year. Do right. We’ll feed you all this stuff, show you the sickness you have, and, after the year, let you go, it’s up to you whether you’re going to continue using.

  • There has never been any place for drug addiction, except the criminal justice system, and I think this has provided an alternative place for the medical system, so to speak, in the health care system for drug addiction, not just the criminal justice system.

One Portland participant thought that the purpose of the drug court was to reduce recidivism and also reduce jail overcrowding:

  • It’s going to cut down on the recidivism rate for people who have drug offenses. It’s going to ease overcrowding in the jails. It’s going to save the county and State money in the long run, because they are going to spend less money putting us through treatment than they are locking us up.

Some of the participants had less positive comments about what they thought the purpose of the drug court to be:

  • Actually, I think the drug court plays the role of a babysitter. . . . I think it’s a babysitting capacity.

One participant said that he thought it was an insurance scam; another thought it had financial aims:

  • They were worried about my insurance. They called me four times to make sure I got it paid. I don’t know that they are being honest with us.

  • It’s more like a boundary. . . . To me I don’t think they really care . . . much about what happens to you, as long as they’re doing their job . . . as far as the payment issue and stuff. If you can’t pay they are going to throw you in jail. . . .

San Bernardino

San Bernardino participants were convinced the drug court was designed to help them, to teach them a new way of life, and to give them a second chance, but with structure and enforcement . . . a needed “hammer.”

  • You don’t like it. . . . You gotta go deep down in your heart and understand it’s like a second chance. . . . You’d rather be out here than in jail.

  • A second chance at turning your life around. . . . It’s the best place because you got a hammer over your head . . . y’know, jail. It’s like you just gotta do it. It’s the hammer.

  • It’s a mind thing, it’s all up to you. . . . This program gonna be on your neck for a year but it’s all up to you if you really want to stay clean.

  • Most of us want to be different people and have a normal life with a house and kids and all, but a lot of us are still into drugs and we don’t know how. And, you know, going to jail doesn’t stop us. This gives you a chance to change your life around.

  • I think it helps you feel special. . . . I want a future and I couldn’t do that on my own.

  • To me, I think it’s more responsibility. It teaches you how to be more responsible, how to manage your life, and encourage you to get a job . . . and give you a different frame of mind than being an addict.

  • To show me and my kids a clean way of life and not the life I had in the past. . . . It tries to show us a different way, hopefully a better way.


Seattle participants saw the drug court’s purpose as involving a response to jail crowding and an element of punishment, but with an overall helpful intent:

  • The prisons are getting so overcrowded and they’re not going to help the addict by throwing them in prison. . . . So the idea of drug court is to keep them out of prison, put them in treatment and get their lives back. . . .

  • Also, I believe in drug court there is some punishment . . . facing jail and different types of sanctions. . . . It guides people into different avenues of opportunity.

  • It’s treating people like people instead of criminals.

  • To give the drug addict an opportunity to get off drugs and straighten out his life. . . .

  • Drug court was designed I believe for political reasons. . . . I believe it was designed to help overcrowding in the penal institutions. Instead of warehousing us into institutions, it treats us as individuals.

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An Honest Chance: Perspectives on Drug Courts April 2002