San Diego County has a program specifically designed for high-risk offenders whose criminal history relates to a history of drug abuse and addiction.  It has been in existence for almost 20 years. Drug Courts have been applauded throughout the country for being cost effective and for significantly reducing recidivism.  It is both a path to freedom and a fresh start.



The Drug Court in the Central Courthouse takes place in Department 19 and convenes every Tuesday from 9:30 a.m.to 12:00 p.m.


The Drug Court in the Vista Courthouse takes place in Department 23 and convenes every Thursday from 2:00 p.m. to 4:30 p.m.


The Drug Court in the Chula Vista Courthouse takes place in Department 9 and convenes every Friday from 9:00 a.m. to 11:00 a.m.


The Drug Court in the Vista Courthouse takes place in Department 16 and convenes every Thursday from 2:00 p.m. to 4:00 p.m.


In addition to the defendants in the program, there is also a multidisciplinary team in attendance at every hearing.  This team includes the Judge, a Deputy District Attorney, a Deputy Public Defender, a Law Enforcement representative, a Probation representative, and a Treatment representative.



Drug Court eligibility is more easily defined by who is not eligible rather than who is eligible.  Drug Court excludes offenders charged with violent offenses, sex crimes, manufacturing illegal substances and other serious offenses.  Funding under the Crime Bill excludes participation by any offender who has been charged with a violent offense or who has a prior conviction for a violent crime. The court is designed to treat non-violent drug-using offenders whose criminal history is related to drug abuse and addiction.

In order to be eligible for Drug Court, the individual must also be eligible for probation.  Since the program takes place out of custody the person must be on probation in order to participate in the program.

The District Attorney does not have to agree to send a defendant to Drug Court.  Eligibility is not dependent upon a unanimous agreement by all parties to refer a defendant to Drug Court.  The court has the autonomous authority and ability to refer an eligible individual to Drug Court.


Intensive programs like Drug Courts are expected to have the greatest effects for high-risk offenders who have done poorly in standard treatments.  High-risk individuals ordinarily require a combined regimen of intensive supervision, behavioral accountability, and evidence-based treatment services, which Drug Courts are specifically structured to provide. Drug Courts have been shown to have the greatest effects for high-risk participants who are relatively younger, have more prior felony convictions, are diagnosed with anti-social personality disorder, or have previously failed on probation.

In other words, Drug Court is designed for and effective upon individuals who are facing a significant period of time in custody and who have made several criminal missteps.  It is also proven to be more effective for individuals who have not been successful in less structured and less intense treatment programs.


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Drug Court is a minimum of 18-months long, consisting of five separate phases.  The first phase is, predictably, the most intense and structured phase.  As the participant graduates phases, the restrictions lessen as the participant earns greater freedoms.  All phases consist of drug testing, group sessions, and court hearings.  Often times, and depending on the participant’s individual needs, additionally therapy, counseling, parenting, or education classes may be ordered.

During the first phase, which is typically twelve weeks long but can be longer depending on the individual, the participant is subjected to random drug test at a minimum of three times every week.  Any missed drug test is considered by the program as a positive test.  The participant must attend also court every week.  The participant must attend group therapy sessions for two hours a day, five days a week.  The participant must abide by any and all restrictions set by the program.  These include the requirements set forth in the Drug Court contract as well as restrictions that are participant specific.  Because the program is based on a “Memorandum of Understanding” the restrictions do not have to comply with constitutional guarantees.  In this manner, the court can limit a participant’s movements and associations and not allow a participant to enter a particular part of the county.  The participant may also be set up with ancillary services such as job training and employment assistance, education, and health referrals.

During the group sessions, the participant is expected to share and discuss their personal history and relationship with drugs. Quickly, however, the underlying issues leading to drug abuse are uncovered allowing the counselors to evaluate if the participant requires additional therapy or treatment.  Honesty is the quality that is most respected and enforced in the Drug Court environment. If a participant is not being forthcoming or is not sharing wholeheartedly then the participant will be “called out” by the other members of the group session and required to put forth a more genuine attitude and personal account.

In these ways, the program distinguishes itself from less intensive treatments.  With the judicial involvement and holistic approach to each individual, the program is not narrowly focused on pushing an individual toward completion of the program but, instead, the goals are to “improve lives that have been impacted by drug addiction, and to increase public safety by reducing the amount and frequency of drug-related crimes.” (San Diego Superior Court website.)  In other words, the program coordinators are looking at the long-term goals for each participant.  The lives they hope to improve are not limited to just those of the participants, but also to the families and children of the participants.


If an individual is eligible for Drug Court they will undergo an initial assessment by the Program Manager or Therapist involved in the Drug Court program.  A judge must order an assessment for Drug Court. The assessment takes place while the individual is in custody and is done in jail holding in the courthouse. The assessment usually lasts about an hour.

If, after being screened, the individual is approved for Drug Court, the next step is for the multidisciplinary team to evaluate the person’s record and personal history, taking into account their interview during the assessment.  This round table occurs usually the same week as or the week following the assessment. Every member of the team is encouraged to voice their opinion and advocate for their position.  Ultimately, however, the final decision is up to the Judge.

If a person is accepted into the program then the Thursday following the round table the individual will have a “pre-welcome” at Drug Court.  The individual will be notified of the decision.  The Judge will sentence the participant to three years of probation and Drug Court completion is ordered as a condition of probation. The individual will not be released until the following Monday.  When the new participant is released he will very likely be placed in a residential treatment or sober living program as is deemed appropriate by the Drug Court Team.  Upon the participant’s release, the program and “programming” begins immediately.


The termination guidelines for Drug Court is also what makes this program so unique from other treatment regimens. As opposed to programs like CRASH that have a “zero tolerance policy” or programs like Prop 36/PC 1210 that have a “three-strikes” policy, Drug Court is focused on proximal goals and holding the participant responsible for the things they are fully capable of doing.  For example, the participant is fully expected from the very beginning of the program to be on-time, to show up to and complete the drug tests, to attend all group sessions and court dates, and to be honest.  These are all things an individual, no matter how severe their addiction, can achieve.

A participant’s unsatisfactory compliance in their proximal goals results in sanctions.  Sanctions can range in their severity depending upon the violation but include restrictions on freedoms and often times may be custodial in nature (the participant can be placed in jail).  In fact, sanctions are a key component to the participant’s success.  Controlled experiments have confirmed that the imposition of gradually escalating sanctions for infractions, including brief intervals of jail detention, significantly improves outcomes among drug offenders.

There is no set number of violations that results in termination.  Instead, it is a decision that is reached by the team and, again, is ultimately up to the Judge.  However, persistent noncompliance is absolutely not tolerated.  If a participant is terminated from the program, the individual will be sent back to court for sentencing.  If the case is referred to Drug Court following a conviction at a jury trial, the trial judge has the option of retaining jurisdiction of the case or referring it to a calendar court.

The other way that a person can end their participation in Drug Court is through successful completion of all phases.  In some cases, probation may be terminated at the end of the program, but in other cases, the individual must successfully complete the full three years of probation.


A common misconception by legal professionals and defendants alike is that Drug Court is a “Get Out of Jail Free Card.”  Given the rigorous schedule, intense supervision, high demands of time and compliance, and significant ramifications if terminated from the program, the participants are not, in fact, getting off easy.

It is true that an individual who successfully completes Drug Court may have avoided significant time in prison.  However, this reward is earned through genuine growth and compliance with rigid requirements.  Completion of Drug Court reflects a true commitment to sobriety and to changing one’s life.  It requires a person to abandon the crutches and excuses that have fueled their addiction and accept responsibility for their present and future.

Another misconception about Drug Court is that an individual must be ready for treatment in order to achieve success.  As it turns out, the decision that a defendant needs to work on their recovery can occur after they are accepted into the program.  This occurs more frequently than one would think.  This is because an individual may request Drug Court without fully understanding the program’s demands for the obvious reason of avoiding jail time.  However, once in the program where they are forced to participate- with genuine effort- in all of the key components and where they are surrounded by individuals exerting similar efforts- the program has the same effectiveness as it does on an individual who entered the program after hitting their proverbial “rock-bottom”.

            Furthermore, the individual still faces the weight of their entire prison sentence if they are unsuccessful in the program.  Except in instances where a strike has been stricken, the court is not limited in its ability to sentence the defendant to the full prison term the individual “got out of” when referred to Drug Court.  This provides added incentive for the participant to be compliant with the rules of the program and truly assists in keeping the individual on track.

Drug Court is a program specifically designed for high-risk drug offenders who need a serious, well-rounded, multi-dimensional intervention to give them new life skills so they may learn how to function soberly in society and not recidivate.  It is an excellent tool for individuals struggling with an addiction and legal troubles to get a fresh start.