Skip to Main ContentAn Honest Chance: Perspectives on Drug Courts

The Courtroom Experience


The Brooklyn Treatment Court differed from the other courts in the survey in the size of the geographic area and population it served. More importantly, in consideration of the courtroom experience, the Brooklyn Treatment Court also made use of a large number of treatment providers rather than the single or several providers employed by the other drug courts. This resulted in a courtroom experience in which participants were less likely to know one another from the streets:

  • You don’t know hardly anybody.

  • You don’t necessarily belong to the same groups.

  • It’s usually a bunch of strangers.

  • Sometimes you run across someone you know.

  • When I used to come to court, the program I was in, like maybe 12 of us would go to court the same day. So we all got dressed up. It was a good thing.

Some participants noted that the experience of coming to court was very disagreeable in the beginning:

  • In the beginning, when I started coming here, my attitude was, “Go to hell.” I didn’t want to come here. I didn’t like coming here. . . . Then I see my life is getting a little better, then I started to enjoy coming here. But at the beginning . . . I look around and everybody clapping for me like that because I complete something. . . . It become enjoyable, something to look forward to. . . . Now I want to come and do it; I want to show then I’m clean and I’m not doing what I did before.

  • I use to hate coming down here once a month giving urine. I use to argue at him: Why can’t you fax my urine over there? . . . Like I want to see the judge every day. . . . So I hated coming down here. . . . And then . . . as time went on and I got to Phase III . . . they gave me something and I’m going to give something back. But I hated it. . . .

Other participants simply did not like the experience:

  • The courtroom . . . I despise ’cause I have to do it. You gotta do this or suffer the consequences. Then you get there, you sit there all day—might have a little laugh—for me I can’t wait till the courtroom day is over.

Many spoke of the experience of going to court as making them very apprehensive:

  • Scary.

  • You know you have to go to court once a month, so if you mess up, like I said, it’s on you. So you gotta be nervous when you go to court but if you don’t do anything, you gonna be all right. So I didn’t have no problem going to court.

  • I’ve been to court so many times, it’s like a nightmare. I know that my urine is clean but I don’t know what I was doing when I was getting high. So I don’t know if they got everything in their records. . . . So every time I go to court, it’s like, “What are they going to say now?” And I know I’m doing everything right but I don’t know 20 years ago what I did. Something might come out where they say they gotta send you to jail.

  • There’s a sense of unsureness, like a rush, that keeps you tense. Until the moment the computer reads out that everything is okay.

  • When I first got into the program every time a court date came up I was paranoid because I wasn’t doing very good.

  • In the beginning, when I first started this process and I knew I had dirty urine, I still come to court and was always scared, worried. I couldn’t go on living like that.

Many seemed to appreciate the experience and view it as intended to be helpful:

  • There’s something else, though. Everyone that’s affiliated with the courtroom itself . . . they understand our addiction. They have some knowledge we are addicts and that we are subject to do things that other persons might not do. Even the court officers. . . . Nobody in the courtroom likes to see you go to jail. They all know we trying.

  • Well I loved going to court because my name stayed up on the screen all the time. . . . I loved it, coming to court.

Some commented that the courtroom experience was an important learning experience for them:

  • Watching the others, it’s like looking at myself sometimes. . . .

  • I wish they could know what I know and this is what I see in front of me now when I go to court.

  • I have seen a lot of my peers get rearrested that completed the program . . . and I say to myself, you never forget where you come from because you can always go back.

Las Vegas

Regardless of whether they had a positive or negative opinion of the drug court, Las Vegas participants viewed the drug court courtroom experience as an event of critical importance. Several participants described their great nervousness about attending court, and many other participants expressed their agreement:

  • I generally sleep very little or not at all the night before court. . . . Sometimes I have hypertension, my blood pressure goes way up.

  • Oh God, I get scared. [Many people responding at once to agree with speaker.]

  • Yeah that helps me, ’cause I shake like a leaf even if I know I did everything I’m supposed to do. I still have fear running through my veins the minute they call my name. . . .

The comments of the Las Vegas participants suggested that they learned a great deal by sitting in court and watching the cases of others who were appearing before the judge:

  • The first time he told me to expect to sit there and be one of the last ones to leave because by my being new he wanted me to actually see what was going on and I saw one person put in jail and then he hollered at a few other people for messing up and then he complimented people for doing good, and I saw this happen. I mean it was good for me to see the first time, but now that I’m doing good I want to be my own person. I shouldn’t have to sit and watch all these other people, you know, and their problems. I should just be able to go in and get on out of there. . . .

  • You see different stages. . . . You see what could happen to you. I mean it’s like me graduating, I could look back at people—you knew a lot of people grew. . . .

  • You learn from other people. . . .

  • You see them graduate and you want to be there so they quit treating you like you’re the scum under his shoe . . . and when you see them people get 4-week reviews that’s where you want to be because they come in, you did good, you got my money, yep, all right, bye, have a nice day. . . .You know you going, “Hey, that way easy, well that’s where I want to be.” But, then again, it works both ways, you see what you can and can’t do. . . .

  • It’s like therapy. Some people be like that. That could be you.

  • Then you see people goin’ to jail.

  • When you see it all the time it keeps it fresh in your mind. Hey, you know he’s going to throw your butt in jail if you don’t do what you’re supposed to do.

  • For me I think it’s a lesson to be learned, because a lot of the questions I have in my mind are being answered right there.

Some participants thought that the experience was negative and that the focus group members were not being honest about how they felt about going to court:

  • I don’t agree. I think that most people in there, . . . they’re looking at that going on, thinking, “I don’t care about these people. I don’t care if they’re going to jail.” . . . It’s more that you don’t know what they’re going through and you really don’t care because you just want to get on with your thing. . . . You want to get your name called and out the door. . . .

  • I don’t care about Joe Blow you know.


Miami participants expressed mixed perspectives on the courtroom experience in their drug court. For some, it was a source of apprehension:

  • 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. . . .

  • Oh, I take 175 milligrams a day. . . . I suffer from anxiety and depression. I have to take tranquilizers every day—if I go in that courtroom I have to take two tranquilizers ’cause I get like this.

Others believed that the experience was basically helpful.

  • I don’t mind because I’m clean and he just tells me, “Good job sweetheart—I’ll see you when I see you.” And it’s just like a 10-minute thing and then. . . .

  • I like it because we’re all the same. . . . We all have the same problem and I think the judge is aware of that. . . . He is very compassionate. If you cross the line, you get the consequence for it. . . . On the right path, he encourages you.

  • I’m saying it’s good. When you go there and the judge say you’re doing fine and you got another 2 whole weeks to come back and then you graduate I see everybody get up and start clapping.

  • For me it’s a trip. Everybody’s like all nervous and they’re all worried like, “I’m gonna get arrested,” and then there’s times like when somebody graduates and for those that are sitting in the crowd, and we do clap, maybe we’re clapping like oh cool, all right . . . but to see the person who’s graduating, they’re like so hyped up, they’re so happy with themselves and they’re so exuberant at that moment, y’know, and I just say to myself, “Dang, I can’t wait till I’m up there”. . . and I’m the one saying, “Yeah, I’m out of here.” I think it’s a really good motivator.

  • I enjoy watching them. I have a good time. I laugh. He makes you laugh. Some of the things people come up with. . . .

One expressed a more impatient view, earning nods from other participants:

  • Like after I finish here, I don’t want to see that place ever again.


Although there were different opinions on the courtroom experience among Portland focus group participants, their preoccupation with going to court and the courtroom experience itself was a recurrent theme throughout the focus group session. A number of the Portland participants felt anxious and nervous about going to court:

  • For myself, I felt paranoid. Even though the first time I came into the program I had smoked marijuana, for the 2 weeks before that I had probably 10 clean UAs [urinalyses] and had decided I wanted to do it again with some friends and took a puff. But I knew what might happen to me when I went to court. It was constant, constant, constant in my mind. . . . I go in the first time I had ever screwed up. I went to jail for 2 days and that woke me [finger snap], so that every time I go there [to court], I feel kind of anxious.

  • I’m doing good but every time I go, I’m just nervous, every single time, I don’t know why but I just hate going there, but I do like to sit and listen to some of the stories being told.

Another said that it was an invasion of privacy in court when the judge discussed her personal business in front of everybody else:

  • Yeah, every time, even if I’m doing good, I’m paranoid standing in front of a whole bunch of people discussing your personal business, like when they found out I was pregnant. Did I want everybody to know my business?

Some participants felt that going to court was an inconvenience because it could conflict with work schedules. One participant disagreed and argued that, really, going to court is not much of an inconvenience when you are doing well:

  • I don’t know how much of an inconvenience it is, because I know since I’m doing well I don’t go to court. I go to court every 6 weeks. It’s not a big deal, I mean, and if you are responsible when you first start the program it’s 2 weeks and you do a round then it’s 4 and now I’m going every 6 weeks.

Some noted that going to court is a learning experience. Most agreed that positive feedback from the judge is very important to them. One participant said that it was because he had to attend court that he was successful in treatment:

  • I’ve been arrested 29 times. I don’t like going to court, but this is different somehow. I don’t think I would have graduated if it hadn’t been for the court thing. . . . This is the fourth treatment program and it’s the only one that’s done anything and I think that’s because I had a hammer over my head constantly.

Some Portland participants complained that the evening session is overcrowded and that going to court takes up a lot of time because there is so much waiting:

  • I did not really like it [going to court] because I had other things to do besides run to court. I don’t have all day to sit up in court until 5 o’clock in the evening, even though I knew I was doing good and everything but still I have other things to do.

One participant said that it was difficult to find someone to look after his/her child when he/she had to go to court.

San Bernardino

These themes were repeated in the San Bernardino groups:

  • Sweaty palms, sweaty palms.

  • When they call your name and you gotta sheet. . . . By now people see that red spot by your name and when you’re dirty, you’re dirty. . . . The day before when you have to go for the test, that’s when it’s scary. That’s when it’s scary, when you go out there and you have to be honest. As long as you’re honest. . . .

  • It feels like . . . I walk through this door and . . . paranoia. I see some people, they think they was doing good, and bam! At the last minute, we get the “box.”

  • I think it’s scary for me because even though I know I’m not going to jail ’cause I been doing my program, the fear is still there. . . .

  • You get weak in the knees. [Intense laughter from the group.]

  • I know that I’m clean but I still have butterflies in my stomach—just the thought of going to the courtroom, it makes me nervous.

  • It’s like, y’ know, I used to break into stores or lift stuff, and when I went out I would be worried about the alarm going off. That’s the worst sound. Then I stopped doing crime when I was in the program. But every time I walk by a store or in a store, even if I’m doin’ nothin’ wrong, I’m afraid the alarm is goin’ off. It doesn’t make sense, but I wait, my heart starts goin’ faster, I wait for it to go off for no reason. When I go to court, it feels like that even when I’m sure I did what I was supposed to.

Some participants thought the experience was constructive:

  • As long as your tests are clean, you don’t have to worry about it.

  • I think it gives a lot of clarity. It makes you think of the good job you did.

  • At first, I didn’t think nothin’. . . . When I see them go to the box, it gives me more power, like, damn, I’m not like them. . . .

  • It’s a learning experience for me. You just learn what to do. When you see somebody doin’ right and they get patted on the back, you think, “I want to be like that next time I come.” Or when you see someone get the cuffs slapped on them, you thinking like, “Oh, I ain’t going to do that. I don’t want to be that person.”


Seattle focus group participants freely expressed feelings of apprehension:

  • Oh yeah! Very nervous. Sometimes I have panic attacks.

  • When I got there I was scared—I was rich okay—I felt she wasn’t going to take me. Like I wasn’t going to make it and I needed it. . . . I been there with her in that courtroom. She had to put me in jail because of my own stupidity.

  • To me, any time I enter the courtroom, even today when there isn’t anyone in court, this fear of the unknown. . . . You have no control over what happens when you walk into that courthouse.

  • I’m always real nervous in court because . . . she does have a lot of power and can do just about anything she wants. And then there is the sense of relief when you get out and it wasn’t as bad as you thought.

Many participants expressed the view that the court experience was helpful and positive:

  • I was relieved. I like structure, see. So to have that structure in the drug court was like . . . YES!

  • If you have personal issues and they know it, they’ll wait and call you up last because they don’t want to embarrass you or make a big production of it with a courtroom full of people . . . That really makes me feel good. The respect they are showing.

  • Me, it’s when they call me up first I am relieved because that means I was doing good—it’s called the Express Card. If you’re doing good, like your urines are clean, you’re going to all your groups . . . then you get an Express and you’re up there right away. In and out. It’s better than waiting all day. It’s called drug court clout.

  • You take regular court. You can’t say nothing unless you are spoken to. Here in the drug court you are given the opportunity to help in your own case. You can talk to the judge. You’re treated like a human being. Here, you’re making a decision for yourself. ’Cause it’s your life, not theirs.

  • But comin’ in, them turnin’ around and smilin’ and givin’ you the thumbs up and really all of them, we’re talking the clerks, the typist, the people from TASC, everybody is involved, is totally into your success, and they will get you for your failures. I mean they all care about you. I think it’s like a family thing.

  • The judge begins to know when you’re lying. She knows when you’re lying.

  • It gets to where I know everyone on a first-name basis and they know you and not only does the judge know what’s going on in your life, she remembers. . . . It makes me feel like “on.”

As in the other sites, some participants did not appear convinced that the courtroom experience was positive:

  • You gotta sit through all the people comin’ from jail, sit there for hours, man, seriously. . . . The longer you sit there, the worse your punishment is goin’ to be.

  • I feel like I’m on a soap box. . . . Going to court is a pain.

Back to The Courtroom Experience

An Honest Chance: Perspectives on Drug Courts April 2002