Learn more about the types and effectiveness of court-ordered treatment for drug and alcohol use disorders

Court-ordered treatment for substance use disorders is often given as a consequence for drug-related offenses. While court-ordered rehab is sometimes viewed as a “free pass,” it has many requirements and consequences for non-compliance.

What Is Court-Ordered Rehab?

A common misconception about court-ordered treatment is that it differs from voluntary substance use disorder treatment. So, exactly what is court-ordered rehab? Court-ordered treatment may take many forms and often is conducted in the same setting as voluntary treatment. The specific requirements of treatment vary with each unique court sentence. In some cases, treatment may be given as an alternative to incarceration or as a way to reduce the length of incarceration or probation.

Drug Courts

Drug court is an alternative to incarceration for individuals convicted of substance-related offenses. To understand drug courts, two questions must be addressed:

  1. What is drug court?
  2. How does drug court work?

Drug court is a program run by the judicial system aimed at reducing future criminal activities while alleviating the burden and cost of incarcerating non-violence offenders. Drug court is an opportunity to receive treatment and education that requires complete abstinence from substances, including alcohol. 

Drug court includes screening and assessment, routine monitoring including drug testing, and community supervision. Drug court participants are required to attend substance use disorder treatment, though the specific requirements for an individual’s treatment may vary. Participants are monitored by a multidisciplinary team including judges, treatment providers and law enforcement officials. The team meets regularly and addresses what is going well and what is not going well in the participant’s treatment plan. If obligations are not fulfilled by the participant, consequences are given. For example, if a drug test is failed or a treatment appointment is missed, a brief period of incarceration may be required. 

Reasons for Court-Ordered Treatment

Court-ordered treatment has risen in popularity as researchers now know that substance use disorders are treatable, medical conditions. While previous offenders were incarcerated and not provided any treatment, many jurisdictions are beginning to implement treatment as a consequence for certain offenses. 

Types of Court-Ordered Treatment

Court-ordered drug programs vary greatly. The intensity ranges from outpatient educational programs to residential programs. The intensity required is dictated in part by the level of offense and a person’s previous legal involvement. 

1. Educational Programs

The most basic form of court-ordered treatment is educational programming. Drug education programs are often favored for their ease of accessibility and cost-effectiveness. A drug offender education program is often the first type of court-ordered treatment that is given for first offenses. It is also used widely in the jail and prison system. However, on their own, educational programs are not likely to be effective for the majority of participants. This type of intervention works best during the early stages of substance use. 

2. Group Counseling

Group counseling is another common mandated treatment. Some groups may consist solely of court-mandated participants, while others may include voluntary participants. Group counseling often focuses on connecting individuals to community resources, such as 12-step fellowships, and improving relapse prevention skills. 

3. Outpatient Programs

Outpatient programs include both group and individual counseling. Court-ordered outpatient treatment programs provide a more in-depth level of care. In many cases, an intensive outpatient program (IOP) may be required. IOP consists of attending group counseling multiple days each week for several hours at a time in addition to receiving individual counseling and psychiatric services. 

4. Community-Based Programs

Community-based drug rehabilitation programs may be mandated for offenders who have been arrested multiple times, those on house arrest, or during re-entry from long-term incarceration. Community-based programs may consist of daily services and often are provided within the setting of a halfway house. 

5. Residential Programs

Residential treatment programs are the highest intensity of court-ordered treatment. Residential programs remove a person from the community for an average of 28 days to receive full-time treatment, though there are many options that provide shorter or longer-term care. 

Effectiveness of Court-Ordered Treatment

Research reveals that the effectiveness of court-ordered substance abuse treatment is comparable to voluntary treatment. Some studies have even shown that court-ordered participants have higher treatment completion rates than voluntary participants. Receiving treatment has the potential to increase a person’s desire to stop using and enhance motivation to change. Thus, court-ordered treatment may be as effective as voluntary treatment. 

In some cases, it has been found that court-ordered participants had better treatment outcomes than their voluntary treatment counterparts. This may be related to the higher rate of attendance and increased treatment retention of court-ordered clients. 

Who Pays for Court-Ordered Treatment?

Ultimately, taxpayers fund the brunt of court-ordered treatment services. However, in many cases, offenders pay for the services they receive, at least in part. In situations where a halfway house is mandated, residents almost always are required to pay their own rent.  

Substance use has been estimated to cost the government more than $193 billion — $113 billion is associated with the cost of drug-related crime. Treatment, on the other hand, was estimated to cost $14.6 billion. 

Can You Refuse Court-Ordered Treatment?

In most cases, court-ordered treatment is an option given to avoid or reduce the length of incarceration. In other cases, it may be required for individuals on probation or parole. When this occurs, the option to forgo treatment is typically available but will result in other, usually harsher, legal consequences. 

Unless the specific treatment mandated violates a person’s constitutional rights and no other options are allowed, court-ordered treatment can only be refused in exchange for other legal penalties. Mandated treatment violating a person’s constitutional rights is rare but may occur if a person is required to attend a religiously based program. 

How to Choose a Court-Ordered Treatment Program

Court-ordered drug treatment programs may be selected by the court system. In many cases, recommendations are provided to offenders. In other cases, a person may be able to select their own treatment provider as long as the provider meets the requirements of their court order. As court-ordered treatment is an opportunity, it is a good idea to try to make the best of the situation and find a program that is most likely to help you. Researching facilities to learn more about their treatment philosophy and programs may help narrow your decision. 

The Recovery Village operates several treatment facilities across the country that treat addiction and co-occurring mental health conditions. To learn more about the treatment options available, contact a representative today.

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Editor – Megan Hull
Megan Hull is a content specialist who edits, writes and ideates content to help people find recovery. Read more
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Medically Reviewed By – Denise-Marie Griswold, LCAS
Denise-Marie Griswold is a Licensed Clinical Addictions Specialist. She earned her Master's Degree in Substance Abuse and Clinical Counseling from East Carolina University in 2014. Read more

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Hhs.gov. “What Are Drug Courts?“>What Are Drug Courts?” May 15, 2018. Accessed May 17, 2019.

Coviello, Donna M., Zanis, Dave A., Wesnoski, S. A., Palman, N., Gur, Arona, Lynch, Keven, G., & McKay, James R. “Does Mandating Offenders to Treatment Improve Completion Rates?“>Does Man[…]letion Rates?” Journal of Substance Abuse Treatment, April 1, 2014. Accessed May 17, 2019.

Drugabuse.gov. “Principles of Drug Abuse Treatment for Criminal Justice Populations: A Research-Based Guide.” April 2014. Accessed May 17, 2019.

Justice.gov. “The Economic Impact of Illicit Drug Use on American Society.“>The Econ[…]ican Society.” April 2011. Accessed May 17, 2019.

Samhsa.gov. “Substance Abuse Treatment for Adults in the Criminal Justice System.“>Substanc[…]stice System.” 2005. Accessed May 17, 2019.

Medical Disclaimer

The Recovery Village aims to improve the quality of life for people struggling with substance use or mental health disorder with fact-based content about the nature of behavioral health conditions, treatment options and their related outcomes. We publish material that is researched, cited, edited and reviewed by licensed medical professionals. The information we provide is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. It should not be used in place of the advice of your physician or other qualified healthcare providers.