Rehab vs. Jail for Drug-Related Crimes
Substance abuse and criminal justice often follow two paths: rehab and jail. Each offers different strategies and has different ramifications for those looking for recovery. In some states, the court system helps to separate the two by putting those who are eligible for rehab as a consequence of their actions into drug courts and those who are ineligible into criminal court. 
Some of the factors that influence whether or not a person may have drug rehab offered to them as an option include the following:
- The nature of the crime committed or the reason why the person is in front of the court in the first place (e.g., violent versus nonviolent crime)
- What drug they have in their possession at the time of arrest
- How much of that drug was in their possession
- Whether or not they are primarily a drug user or a drug dealer
- Their past arrests or convictions
- Their past attempts at rehab, especially through drug court
If drug court is an option, most people who commit first-time and/or nonviolent crimes and can demonstrate that their criminal acts were due to untreated drug addiction may have drug rehab as an available path forward.
What Are Drug Courts?
Drug courts are specialized court programs designed to address the needs of individuals struggling with substance abuse. These courts aim to combine judicial oversight with comprehensive treatment and support services to help participants overcome their addiction and reduce their involvement in the criminal justice system.
The primary intention of drug courts is to promote recovery and rehabilitation rather than solely focusing on punishment. Here’s how it usually works:[1-3]
Eligibility & Referral
Individuals who have committed nonviolent drug-related offenses and have substance abuse issues may be eligible for drug court programs. Eligibility criteria vary by jurisdiction, so make sure to ask your attorney for details of the program in your county.
Once the referral is made, substance abuse counselors and mental health experts conduct a detailed assessment, looking into the person’s criminal and medical history (if available) to determine their specific treatment needs, strengths, and likelihood of treatment success.
Judicial Supervision & Compliance
A judge will require check-ins to confirm the person is holding up their end of the bargain and staying in compliance with all aspects of the treatment plan while also avoiding drug use and run-ins with police. If it is determined that they are adhering to sentencing guidelines, the judge may end the rehab program and order them to jail.
In addition to addiction treatment, the individual may need other support to help them be successful, including access to healthcare, assistance with finding housing, support for employment opportunities, family counseling, and peer support groups. The collaboration between drug courts and community organizations ensures participants receive comprehensive support and improve their chances of long-term recovery.
Graduation & Aftercare
Completing rehab and other requirements of drug courts usually signifies a shift into probation or an end to the case. Depending on the case, charges may be reduced or dismissed and the person is free to begin aftercare support like community support groups and ongoing personal therapy.
What Should I Do if I Want to Go to Rehab and avoid Jail?
When you stand before a judge, you will not always be able to ask for what you want in terms of sentencing. However, you can usually discuss your options in advance of your court date with your lawyer to determine if you are a good fit for the drug court program, if it is available.
Your lawyer will know the details of what will help your chances of getting rehab vs. jail and what may be a potential obstacle. They will help you decide how to address the situation based on those details.
Every state is different in terms of whether or not drug court is available and what criteria must be met for someone to qualify. In general, drug courts often require the following for any potential candidate:[4-6]
If drug courts and rehab are not available recourse in your county or state, it won’t be an option. Similarly, if there is a program but all the spots are full, the judge may determine that the court’s resources will be better spent on a brief stay in jail, or they may decide to put you on a waitlist if that list is short.
No one who commits a crime that physically harms someone else will be eligible for drug court. Violence requires a criminal consequence in almost all cases. However, if the violence was in self-defense or the context of a drug deal, there may be room to maneuver.
No Criminal History
If you have a record of violent crimes, even if the current offense is nonviolent, you may not be eligible for drug court. The judge will take into account your record to determine your chances of success in rehab. Again, if you feel that something has substantionally changed in your life since your past acts or if those actions were long in the past, you may still be eligible for drug court.
Likelihood of Success
No judge wants to waste their time or the county’s resources by sending someone to rehab who has no intention of getting sober. If you have a multitude of failed past attempts at treatment, you may need to show good reason why this time will be different.
Even if you are not a straightforward shoe-in for drug court, there may be other options that can help you to avoid jail time for drug-related charges. Eligibility for and the availability of these alternatives fluctuate depending on your location and circumstances.
Your attorney should have a strong knowledge and experience with working with these kinds of cases in the system. If they do not, and if they have been appointed to you by the court, ask for a new lawyer or try to find one through a local nonprofit who can help you.
Alternatives to jail and drug court include the following:[7-9]
Pretrial Diversion & Deferred Adjudication
Some jurisdictions offer alternative programs for nonviolent crimes that may not be drug court but might still be an option other than jail. They may not include therapy or rehabilitation that focuses on substance abuse specifically, but they may still address the problem in a broader sense.
Occasionally, negotiation is a viable option. You and your legal representative may collaborate with the prosecution to strike a deal involving community service, fines, or support group meetings. This option may be a possibility when the prosecution believes you genuinely demonstrate a commitment to addressing the root causes of your offense, especially if they have little room in the jails.
In select cases, judges may consider alternatives to imprisonment, such as probation or community service, that speaks to the crime committed. These alternatives hinge on factors like the nature of the offense, your criminal history, and the availability of suitable alternatives.
Comparing Rehab to Jail
Studies show that people who engage in substance abuse treatment programs, employment programs, and community service have recidivism rates that are approximately 10% to 20% lower than those that don’t. Ultimately, addiction treatment means that people are more likely to recover from substance abuse and less likely to engage in criminal acts again.
Ultimately, drug courts have been proven to be more effective than jail at helping people to do better in the future. Drug court programs aim to accomplish these goals:[11-16]
- Help individuals overcome addiction by addressing its underlying causes
- End the revolving door of addiction and crime, reducing repeat offenses and lessening the load on jails
- Save money by treating individuals rather than sending them to jail
- Hold participants responsible for their actions while offering support and encouragement to achieve and maintain recovery
- Offer a range of services, from healthcare to counseling, to meet participants’ needs
- Aim to help participants become and remain productive members of society
- The politics of drug courts. West Virginia University. Moss J. Published 2019. Accessed October 19, 2023.
- Treating substance use disorders in the criminal justice system. Belenko S, Hiller M, Hamilton L. Current Psychiatry Reports. 2013;15(11).
- Overview of drug courts. National Institute of Justice. Published July 22, 2020. Accessed October 19, 2023.
- Defining drug courts: The key components. Bureau of Justice Assistance in Collaboration with National Association of Drug Court Professionals. Published October 2004. Accessed October 19, 2023.
- Seven program design features: Adult drug court principles, research, and practice. Adult Drug Court Research to Practice Initiative. Accessed October 19, 2023.
- Perspectives on the drug court model across systems: A process evaluation. Wolfe EL, Guydish J, Woods W, Tajima B. Journal of Psychoactive Drugs. 2004;36(3):379-386.
- Judicial diversion and deferred adjudication: A national survey. Staff C. Collateral Consequences Resource Center. Published March 1, 2022. Accessed October 18, 2023.
- Prosecutor-led pretrial diversion: Case studies in eleven jurisdictions. Labriola M, Reich W, Davis R, Hunt P, Rempel M, Cherney S. National Criminal Justice Reference Services. Published March 2, 2023. Accessed October 19, 2023.
- Plea and charge bargaining. Devers L. Bureau of Justice Assistance, U.S. Department of Justice. Published January 24, 2011. Accessed October 19, 2023.
- Beyond the prison bubble. Petersilia J. National Institute of Justice. Published November 2, 2011. Accessed October 19, 2023.
- The impact of juvenile drug court on recidivism. Watkins M. Liberty University. Accessed October 19, 2023.
- Drug court effectiveness: A review of California evaluation reports, 1995–1999. Guydish J, Wolfe E, Tajima B, Woods WJ. Journal of Psychoactive Drugs. 2001;33(4):369-378.
- Do Drug Courts Work? Findings from drug court research. National Institute of Justice. Published 2014. Accessed October 19, 2023.
- Assessing the effectiveness of drug courts on recidivism: A meta-analytic review of traditional and non-traditional drug courts. Mitchell O, Wilson DB, Eggers A, MacKenzie DL. Journal of Criminal Justice. 2012;40(1):60-71.
- Outcome effects on recidivism among drug court participants. Gibbs BR, Lytle R, Wakefield W. Criminal Justice and Behavior. 2018;46(1):009385481880052.
- Taking stock of drug courts: Do they work? Logan MW, Link NW. Victims & offenders. 2019;14(3):283-298.