Skip to Main ContentAn Honest Chance: Perspectives on Drug Courts

Is jail important? How well would drug court work if the judge didn’t send people to jail when they were performing poorly?


Brooklyn participants who had been to jail previously found it to be a negative and unproductive experience:

  • Before I come to the [Brooklyn Treatment Court], the total amount of time I spent in jail, give or take, was about 60 days. It was an experience . . . and I said it’s really got to stop.

  • I spent time in jail—6 months—this is why I like the program. When you get out of jail, there’s nothing to do. You go back to the same.

  • You can get high in jail.

  • Here you get outside treatment to go, to but in jail you don’t have nothing. You get to go back to the same atmosphere.

  • Because we know if you stay in jail too long, you gonna come out like raving idiots or animals.

The use of jail as a sanction was central in much of the focus group discussion in Brooklyn:

  • [Jail] is a wakeup—definitely.

  • You need to be scared of something [to make this work].

  • We don’t call it jail, we call it remanded, sanctioned. I didn’t want to go to my day program so she sanctioned me to 2 days in jail. I got out of there and went straight to a residential program.

  • That’s the time you get your head cleared up and think about where you’re going.

  • She gave me 2 days in the Brooklyn House, and I laughed. Then I did 2 weeks in the Brooklyn House and I laughed. Then I did 1 month and a half in the Brooklyn House and I got out and was ready to do the right thing.

  • For me it was because it made me realize that she wasn’t going to play around. . . . I got time. . . . Just the fact that you can go back to jail, you want to make the extra effort to go straight.

  • Did 14 days. Called her every name in the book. When I got back there, I thought about it.When she said 14 days, that’s it.

  • For me, it made me realize she wasn’t going to play around. If you do this, then you gonna go to jail.

  • [Jail] keeps you in check.

Las Vegas

A real desire to avoid incarceration was obvious throughout the focus group discussions of Las Vegas participants:

  • The drug court makes you have to get clean, otherwise you’re going to jail. It’s either or, you know.

  • You know, it makes you have to quit if you want to, otherwise you are going to jail.

  • The last time I was in court he said, “Do you want to be in this program?” and I was dying to say, “No I hate it.”. . . But I’m not going to say that. He’ll say 30 days in jail, the maximum he can give me now.

  • I pushed and worked in the drug court because I didn’t want to go to prison. . . .


Miami participants agreed that the threat of jail was a real motivator in drug court:

  • Yes—it’s very important. [General consensus.]

  • Jail is his hammer when people are out of compliance.

  • Jail motivates change.

  • Program would not work without jail.

  • No, without jail, no. It wouldn’t work. Judge is sayin’, “Like, try to do it again.” If there’s no jail, no punishment, they don’t listen, they just go through it. . . .

  • Jail do help you want to change. Want to change what you are in the world. Like me. Like I go to my old spot, my hanging spot. . . . I want to go back home. I don’t want to have to come here or go to jail. . . .

One participant argued that incarceration was not an appropriate response to addiction:

  • I think it’s a good program for the purpose of staying out of jail, for getting something off your record. . . . But, from a user’s point of view, I don’t think jail should be associated with this. It’s more of a sickness, it’s not a criminal kinda thing. But this is an option to keep you out of jail but I don’t think it’s the ultimate answer.


At least one Portland participant saw avoiding incarceration as a motivating factor, but others focused on other aspects of the situation:

  • 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.

San Bernardino

While San Bernardino participants did not specifically say much about going to jail, they almost all expressed a great deal of fear or apprehension about being “sent to the box” by Judge Morris. Being sent to the box means that the drug court participant is told to sit in the jury box for the remainder of the court session, and then usually placed in jail. Once in the “box,” the participant sometimes will not know whether he or she is going to jail until the conclusion of the session:

  • Like you’re required to test. If you don’t test you go to jail for a week. It’s like, “Get in the box.”

  • It’s the incentive to stay clean, ’cause nobody likes the box.

  • Jail is the final thing.

  • Just because I was honest, he wasn’t mad. I mean, he was disappointed but he wasn’t mad and he still made me go to jail for the weekend and he still made me feel good ’cause I was honest.


The drug court approach in Seattle under Judge MacInnes was unique in its use of incarceration. The judge would send people to jail as a sanction, but would allow them to schedule when they would go, as long as it was within the next 2 weeks. Defendants who were being sent to jail would not be taken into custody in court, but would be allowed to go home and make arrangements with family, employer, etc., and then turn themselves in to the jail on the day selected. Rather remarkably, very few participants ordered to jail fail to turn themselves in as required:

  • It doesn’t matter when you go, it sucks. . . .

  • I really don’t think so—you have like a 2-week period of time that she’ll allow you, you know, because you’ve come forward instead of running off when you know you’ve screwed up, you’ve come forward and are standing in front of her to take your punishment so you’re being, in that respect and so, you know, you’re standing there with a little, “I know I screwed up,” so that during that period of time what day is convenient for you. Because besides doing drugs, I have a life aside from drugs. I know usually people like us don’t have something happening, but we might have gained a little something and so she be flexible.

  • If you get picked up on a warrant, it’s a mandatory 10 days in jail. But if you miss your court date and you bring yourself in the following day, no sanctions, no nothing. . . . But don’t make a habit of it.

  • They let you turn yourself in. I like it because it gives us the responsibility. They trust us and it’s better then. ’Cause otherwise we could just take off. . . . I got to pick my days. I went down there and turned myself in on the days I picked. . . . You know they trust us to turn ourselves in rather than just arrest us right there in court.

  • Sanctions would be harsher if you didn’t turn yourself in. You probably have to do double the time. And plus get a warrant.

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An Honest Chance: Perspectives on Drug Courts April 2002