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What kinds of rewards and sanctions have you experienced in drug court?


Brooklyn participants talked about their experiences with the “90-day” reward, when the participants’ name is highlighted on the court monitor after completing the first 90 days successfully:

  • The 90-day reward . . . it’s that first reward . . . it feels good.

  • I never had my name flashed up there . . . and I’m doin’ everything I’m supposed to be doin’.

The jury box was a commonly experienced sanction:

  • Jury box. That’s a sanction! She makes you sit a whole day in the jury box.

  • She makes you sit there all day and listen to the cases.

Some participants discussed the sanction of repeating a treatment phase after testing dirty or failing to attend treatment:

  • Not moving in phases. If you are in that third month and you do something wrong, you start over at the first month. You keep the same phase but start over from the beginning. Do the 2 months over again. Man.

A good number of participants were assigned community service and had mixed views of the experience:

  • That’s a punishment ’cause it’s like the work . . . whatever you did that bad . . . you got to pay for that too, still, and give back for what you done out there with the community service.

  • It’s not a punishment to me. I went back to the neighborhood where I was messing up for community service. I was tearing the neighborhood up . . . but I went back there and I gave back to the community by helping.

  • I got involved with an outreach program, which I never knew anything about and I felt good that they were in my life. I would give them some of my time because they’re doing some very useful things.

  • At first it was like, I don’ mind but then we got here and they had us doing things like, uh, I didn’t like it. . . . Not only that I get up too early on the weekdays. . . . I didn’t see the purpose.

  • I’m already giving it back. No, I didn’t feel it was some sort of punishment. It was a part of a condition . . . but I didn’t see the need for that.

  • It was all right. . . . I liked it. . . . I just didn’t get anything out of it.

  • I really didn’t approve of the community service. ’Cause we went out to do some community service and . . . so we get out there and paint five houses and the people on the block ask if we can paint their house too. Then there was two more houses. It wasn’t community service no more. Another thing was that we was doing community service but not in our own communities.

  • I wouldn’t feel bad about cleaning up my own community.

  • I didn’t like it—they wanted me to clean up somebody’s backyard—I didn’t mind it.

  • I was working for the church. I had fun.

  • They had us doin’ one that was cleaning the roof and cleanin’ the basement and they had guys cleanin’ out the sewer. But we all did it. I wanted to do it all at one time though. I didn’t want to do it every weekend.

Las Vegas

Las Vegas participants spoke of sanctions for failing to attend treatment, dirty urines, not coming to court, and not paying treatment fees. The sanctions they described included being sent back to an earlier treatment phase, being admonished in court, and being sent to jail:

  • He yells at you.

  • The main thing was he made me feel like an a** most of the time. . . . When I graduated I owed like 1,700 bucks. I’m working it off. He gets irate. And if he gets irate before he gets to your case, he’s going to be really irate when he gets there and you haven’t done what you are supposed.

  • It doesn’t even matter because of extenuating circumstances. The fact of not having his money for court, like being evicted because my husband screwed up and went to jail and I did not even have the money for my rent, let alone for him, and I wasn’t even clean. It didn’t matter. I did not have his money. He had me in cuffs and ready to go. “I’m not buying that excuse,” he says. Finally, he lets me go.

  • I was just sanctioned like 2 weeks ago for the first time since I’ve been in the program and you just kind of go through a rebellious thing. You get a little bit angry, yeah, and you sort of may think you can just do it anyway. So he lets you do it anyway and see what happens. . . . You’re just going to go to jail again. . . . Makes you think. Makes you realize why he’s putting you in jail.

  • You know like if you’re $5 short, he throw you in jail for 3 days. . . . Like what did that accomplish? You know you wasn’t working, you got no money. So you go to jail for 4 days. Now what? You’re going to get money when you come out.

  • Just be honest with the guy. You know he’ll give you a chance.


  • I mean, like it’s I can be doing well, you know, if you missed payment, she seems to be really hot on payment. . . . You know you’re going to get spanked or she never helps you out or she’ll never give you a break. She never lets you slide.

San Bernardino

San Bernardino participants emphasized a mix of rewards and sanctions. Rewards included formal and informal recognition for good progress in treatment:

  • He gives you a certificate for every different phase you get in and then various lengths of clean time, he gives you a certificate too.

  • That’s important, ’cause you know you did something good.

  • One thing is he gets up off his chair and puts his hand out to you. He’ll shake your hand. Not many judges would do that.

  • Handshakes. Pat on the back.

  • Dismiss all your charges. So you can clean your slate and start all over again.

  • I was doing good and was allowed to go to Florida for a week to see my son compete in gymnastics.

  • A lot of people had their license suspended for like 6 months when they got arrested. He’s making it where you’re able to get your license back. . . . You need your license to drive so that’s like a big deal right there.

Sanctions included being admonished, being placed on more intensive treatment, and drug testing, as well as going to jail:

  • He’ll chastise you right in front of everybody.

  • They put you in the “box.”

  • If you get in trouble, you can get community service for 8 hours or he’ll give you 30 and 30, which means 30 drug tests on 30 days.

  • If you miss the tests, it’s the same as being dirty and you go to jail. Then it’s back to 30 and 30.

  • I came in with alcohol and he sent me to Cedar House for 7 days. But I liked it. It gave me a chance to dry out. . . . It’s to open your eyes and let you know this is not a joke, that I mean business, even if it takes goin’ to the box.

  • If you have continuous relapses, he put you in an in-house rehab program and after you get done with that it’s an option to come back here, then if you do it a second time, he’ll send you to jail.

  • A weekend in jail. To them it’s 5 days, not just Saturday and Sunday.


Participants discussed one particular Seattle reward in a favorable light: the “express card,” which permitted accelerated processing in court:

  • The express card. It’s like 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 [in court] right away. In and out.

  • It means you’re doing good. If you’re not on the express and you’re waiting in court all day, you’re usually the last one to be called up. . . . You know that’s not good.

  • She gave me, I had to write an essay on following through with responsibility and I’ll tell you that I did not forget to call in again. . . . Essays are cool but I just didn’t like the fact that I screwed up.

  • The first time I had to sit in the jury box 1 day. . . . My second sanction I had to sit in the jury box 3 whole days.

  • Another sanction, they made me do a few extra NA meetings and group a week.

  • I had to go to jail. First the jury box, 1 day. Then I went to jail for 1 day. Then I went for 2 the second time for a sanction.

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An Honest Chance: Perspectives on Drug Courts April 2002