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Drug court programs offer life-changing alternative to jail

In 1989, Florida's Miami-Dade County set up the first drug court in the United States. There are now around 3,000 operating across the U.S. -- 141 in New York alone -- that deal with an estimated 120,000 people annually.

Various types of drug courts have arisen, some specifically focusing on groups like adults, veterans, juveniles and families, but they are all aimed at helping those accused of non-violent drug felonies who would otherwise be facing jail. Supporters of drug courts claim considerable success in breaking the cycle of incarceration and reoffending by helping those convicted of drug-related crimes to break free of their habit or addiction.

According to the National Association of Drug Court Professionals (NADCP) some 75 percent of those who complete a rehabilitation program remain free of arrest for at least two years afterwards, and additional independent findings suggest that drug court programs may reduce reoffending by as much as 45 percent when compared with alternatives such as probation or jail.

It's important to understand that drug courts are not a soft option

Defendants wishing to participate in the Brooklyn Treatment Court program are first required to plead guilty to the charges against them. Sentencing will then be postponed pending successful completion of the program. Prosecutors, defense attorneys and law enforcement personnel will work together to draw up a detailed and binding contract which the defendant, his or her attorney, the prosecutors and the presiding judge must agree to.

The defendant will then undertake an appropriate treatment program prescribed by mental health and social work professionals. Depending on the severity of the individual's addiction history, the program may involve a variety of medical and psychiatric treatments and advice, including assistance with finding or returning to employment.

The individual's progress through treatment will be monitored by regular court appearances and random tests for substance use. Any breach of an individual's contract may invoke a range of sanctions, including incarceration, but good progress is also rewarded. Successful completion of the program usually leads to the dismissal of the original charges.

Participation in a drug court program is voluntary, but success requires sincere commitment and a thorough understanding of its requirements. So if you think you may benefit from such a program and want to know if you might qualify, the best place to start is by talking to a criminal defense attorney with experience in this field.

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