In the 21st century, an increasing number of this nation’s lawmakers and judges are taking the position that society’s response to minor crimes, especially when they are first offenses, should not always be criminal prosecution followed by incarceration.

Diversion programs such as drug courts are proving that counseling and treatment to deter future crimes is actually a more effective way to deal with a first offender, and it’s more beneficial to the community as well. While every drug court operates differently, most drug courts let offenders participate in community service, pay restitution to their victims, and avoid having a criminal record.

The National Institute of Justice tells us that over three thousand drug courts now operate in the U.S. These are special diversion programs that normally target drug offenders and others with drug or alcohol issues who are charged with a first offense.

The details vary depending on the jurisdiction, but all drug courts are based around treatment, counseling, rehabilitation, monitoring, and drug testing. For most defendants and in most of the drug courts, an offender who completes a drug court program successfully has his or her original drug charge dropped.

Most U.S. drug courts operate with the cooperation of district attorneys, defense lawyers, judges, social workers, corrections officials, and rehabilitation professionals. Support from educators, police authorities, a defendant’s family members, and others in the local community is actively encouraged. Most drug court programs take at least one year to complete, and many programs are longer.

WHAT IS THE HISTORY OF DRUG COURTS IN L.A. COUNTY?

The first drug court in Los Angeles County convened in 1994 under Judge Stephen Marcus. Today, drug courts in Los Angeles County boast an astonishing success rate. While approximately one in ten L.A. County Drug Court graduates commits another crime after graduating, about 70 percent of the offenders handled by the “conventional” criminal courts in L.A. become repeat offenders. One important factor is that the crimes committed by drug court graduates are not drug crimes but are instead the types of minor violations anyone could commit, such as driving on a suspended license.

California drug courts operate with three primary goals:

– to stop drug addiction and abuse
– to keep nonviolent offenders away from overcrowded prisons and jails
– to save money for the taxpayers (Drug court for one offender typically costs taxpayers about twenty – percent of what incarceration for that offender would cost.)

The drug court in Los Angeles County is far less formal than a conventional court. Drug courts exist to treat individuals who suffer from alcohol or drug dependency or addiction, so defendants charged with crimes like drug trafficking and distribution in many cases may not qualify. An offender is more likely to qualify if the charge is something like the possession of a small amount of drugs for personal use.

However, every defendant is considered individually, and the drug court has wide discretion to determine who can participate. For example, a person charged with drug sales who already has a prior conviction for drug sales will be ineligible for most diversion programs, but the Los Angeles County Drug Court may still accept such a defendant if the person has a history of drug dependency issues and the drug sales were made to support the defendant’s addiction.

HOW DOES THE LOS ANGELES COUNTY DRUG COURT PROGRAM WORK?

The L.A. County Drug Court program moves participants through three phases. In phase one, the offender must report to the court every week for one to four weeks and participate in individual and/or group therapy three to four hours daily, five days a week.

The offender must also participate – every day – in a 12-step program like Narcotics Anonymous. Random drug testing is conducted about three times a week during phase one of the program, which usually runs for approximately five months.

Phase two and phase three each run from three to four months. The offender must report to the court about every six weeks, and the amount of time required in meetings and counseling is reduced. Phase two and phase three also introduce outside activity.

Defendants must find work or pursue an education by attending traditional academic classes or vocational training classes. The L.A. County Drug Court expects offenders to be full-time employees or students at the end of phase three.

When a participant successfully completes all three phases of the L.A. County Drug Court program, he or she attends a “graduation” ceremony, and the judge dismisses the charge or charges against the participant. As long as participants are making a genuine effort to stay clean, the court is willing to work with them.

Anyone who fails to complete any of the three phases may have to transfer from outpatient counseling into a residential program – multiple times if necessary – so for some participants, the Los Angeles County Drug Court program may take substantially longer than a single year to complete.

WHAT IS THE “SODC” PROGRAM?

Those who do not qualify for the L.A. County Drug Court program may in some cases qualify instead for the Sentenced Offender Drug Court (SODC), a program exclusively for those with medium to high levels of drug addiction and a non-violent felony conviction.

These higher-risk offenders may be offered the SODC program with formal probation as an alternative to state prison. Charges are not dismissed upon completion of the SODC program, but prison can be avoided.

The Los Angeles County Drug Court program is for drug crime defendants humble enough to admit guilt and accept help with their addiction or dependency. Anyone accused of a drug offense in Los Angeles County should contact an experienced Los Angeles criminal defense lawyer to review your legal rights and options. For many offenders, the Los Angeles County Drug Court program is the right option if you are guilty as charged and need help to fight your addiction or dependency.

And of course, if you are innocent of any criminal charge filed against you, an experienced Los Angeles criminal defense lawyer can fight that charge on your behalf. If you are innocent, your drug crimes attorney will consider a number of defense strategies, try to discover a flaw in the state’s evidence against you, and advocate aggressively for a dismissal, a reduction of the charge, or a “not guilty” finding if the case goes before a jury.

For more information, get in touch with a drug crimes lawyer today.

By: Douglas Miranda

Los Angeles criminal attorney Douglas Miranda graduated with honors from California State University, Los Angeles, and earned his J.D. from Western State College of Law in Fullerton. Since his admission to practice law in California, he has received special training and certification in forensic science, jury selection, and sex crime defense. Mr. Miranda also helps clients terminate their probations early and expunge their criminal records.

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