Drug Court Offers Alternative to Jail for Defendants with Substance Use Disorders

drug court panel

When the Drug Court program was launched in September, it signaled a new and important journey to reduce substance use recidivism in our county, which ultimately can save lives — and money.

What is a Drug Court?

Drug courts are specific court sessions, or dockets, for criminal defendants who have alcohol and/or other substance use disorders. In Fairfax County’s new program, eligible participants have been convicted of a non-violent crime, are on probation and have come back into the court for a felony probation violation related to substance use dependency disorders.

Circuit Court Judge Penney S. Azcarate and Program Coordinator Sarah Gary explain the new court in the video below.

Azcarate, instrumental in establishing the Drug Court, found that approximately 65-70 percent of her cases involve substance use disorder/addictions. Participants commit to spending 14 to 24 months to complete the program, which includes following all treatment recommendations, close monitoring and communication with a probation officer, frequent court status hearings, urinalysis and reports from the treatment providers to the supervising judge.

The Fairfax Circuit Court was approved by the Virginia Supreme Court Drug Treatment Court Advisory Committee to establish the drug court in the fall of 2017. A multidisciplinary Fairfax County Drug Court Team has undergone comprehensive state and national training in preparation for the new docket, which is planned to begin Oct. 18. Team members include representatives from the following areas: prosecutors, public defenders, Fairfax-Falls Church Community Services Board, probation, judge, clerk, evaluator and the Fairfax County Sheriff’s Office.

drug court audience


How are Drug Courts Effective?
judge azcarate

Circuit Court Judge Penney S. Azcarate

Drug courts have been shown to improve lives and reduce substance use among participants, in addition to the rate of those arrested for a similar offense . According to U.S. Department of Justice drug court evaluations, the recidivism of offenders who have been diverted to drug courts is reduced between 50 percent and 60 percent. Studies also have shown that, even with treatment costs included, drug courts saved localities an overall average of $5,600 to $6,200 per offender compared to incarceration.

These courts treat substance use disorders, treat mental health needs, deliver services for lifelong recovery, secure education, employment, housing, break the cycle of addiction in families, reduce re-arrests and re-incarcerations, reduce overdoses and reduce emergency room admissions.

“Participants learn meaningful, productive skills that they can return to the community,” says Drug Court Coordinator Sarah Gary.

The Fairfax County Drug Court is one of several new Diversion First initiatives that offer alternatives to incarceration for people with mental illness, developmental disabilities and substance use disorders who come into contact with the criminal justice system. The goal of Diversion First is to intercede whenever possible to provide assessment, treatment or needed supports in order to prevent repeated encounters with the criminal justice system and promote a healthier community.

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