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Alternative Sentencing Programs

What Is Alternative Sentencing?
Alternative sentencing programs give people convicted of drug offenses the opportunity to seek rehabilitation instead of incarceration. Qualifications for these programs include a non-violent drug offense, no criminal record, completion of an evaluation, and demonstration of a motivation to change. Keep in mind that you will need to complete the rehab program, and these programs may not be available in every area.
In a society that’s becoming increasingly aware of the personal and social costs of drug abuse, the need for effective treatment has become more obvious than ever.

Getting addicted to drugs usually means getting involved with crime. Drug dependency often requires stealing from others or selling drugs in order to support a growing habit. Even if you’ve never had a criminal record in your life, drug and alcohol addiction can drive you to steal, lie and commit crimes you wouldn’t have dreamed of in the past.

But is punishment really the answer to substance abuse? The lure of drugs like cocaine, meth, heroin and alcohol is so powerful that it can overcome a fear of going to jail, losing a job or even losing a family. Without the treatment you need to recover from your addiction, you’re likely to end up in exactly the same position as soon as you’ve finished your sentence. Alternative sentencing programs offer hope to nonviolent drug offenders, giving them the opportunity to begin new lives instead of being incarcerated without adequate treatment for their disease.

Choosing Treatment Over Punishment

Alternative sentencing programs are based on the belief that rehab is a more effective solution for new offenders than prison. Alternative sentencing acknowledges the fact that drugs can turn the best of us into criminals, and that each of us deserves a chance to recover from the disease of addiction. For many of the offenders who are diverted into these programs, alternative sentencing is their first real opportunity to have a shot at medically supervised rehabilitation.

Diversion to a drug rehabilitation program can take place at the county, state or federal level, depending on the crime committed. The Sentencing Reform Act of 1984 attempted to lighten the burden on the US court system by providing an alternative to incarceration for drug-related crimes.

This act set the tone for today’s diversion programs by giving courts the option to offer nonviolent, first-time offenders a chance at rehabilitation.

Who Qualifies?

Who qualifies for alternative sentencing? You may be a candidate for rehabilitation instead of incarceration if you:

  • Committed a nonviolent crime, such as drug possession or drug dealing
  • Do not have a criminal record
  • Demonstrate that you can benefit from outpatient or inpatient rehab
  • Complete an evaluation with a mental health professional or addiction counselor
  • Show that you’re dedicated to getting clean and sober and leading a drug-free, crime-free life

The Adult Drug Court program run by the San Diego County government in California is an example of alternative sentencing in action. Eligible offenders must complete a mandated treatment program under the supervision of the drug court and a competent, caring treatment team. Sanctions are imposed if an offender violates the terms of the treatment program.

Making a Commitment to Recovery

Alternative sentencing requires a commitment on your part if you want to complete the program successfully. You will probably be required to go through a period of probation and undergo regular drug screening at an authorized facility. You’ll need to arrange your schedule to include regular meetings with a probation officer, mental health professional or addiction counselor.

If your treatment team believes you can overcome your addiction in an outpatient setting, you may be referred to an outpatient treatment center, where you’ll participate in individual therapy, family counseling and support groups. If your addiction is more advanced, your counselor or case manager may recommend that you spend time at the best private inpatient rehabilitation facility.

After you’ve completed an intensive rehab program, you might be referred to a group home where you can lead a clean, sober life in your community.

How Alternative Sentencing Helps You and Your Community

Alternative sentencing helps the community as well as the offender. Throughout the country, the criminal justice system is overloaded with drug-related cases. Taxpayers pay millions of dollars to incarcerate offenders for drug crimes. While incarceration is necessary in some cases to keep the public safe, putting nonviolent offenders in jail may simply cost the community money without providing a long-term solution to the problem of addiction.

The benefits of alternative sentencing are far-reaching:

  • Choosing rehabilitation instead of incarceration may save taxpayers money by helping drug offenders get out of the criminal justice system and stay clean. A Research Triangle Institute study of 150 felony offenders in a drug treatment program in Brooklyn, New York found that rehabilitation saved the New York City system over $7 million.
  • Alternative sentencing diverts nonviolent offenders out of the system, so that the courts aren’t overwhelmed with drug cases.
  • Drug rehabilitation gets to the root cause of drug-related crime instead of perpetuating the problem by sending nonviolent offenders straight to prison.
  • Alternative sentencing lets offenders remain in the community, where they can continue to work, take care of their loved ones and make a contribution to society.
  • Outpatient drug rehab programs may benefit the offender’s family by allowing children to continue having regular contact with their parents.

Most importantly, drug rehabilitation gives you the opportunity to delve into the causes of your addiction, heal wounds from your past and mend broken relationships with partners, children, friends or employers. Drug rehabilitation doesn’t erase the past, but it gives you a foundation for making a new start.

Do Tough Sentences for Drug Crimes Help the Public?

Mandatory minimum sentencing is a tough crime-fighting measure, imposing an obligatory sentence on offenders who are convicted of a drug-related crime. But do these severe measures really benefit the community or the offender? In a study of the cost-effectiveness of incarceration sponsored by the Drug Policy Research Center, authors found that:

  • Drug addiction treatment may reduce personal and property crime by as much as 15 percent more than incarceration.
  • In a 15-year comparison of the results of treatment versus incarceration, treatment proved more cost-effective to society, suggesting that treatment is a better long-term solution.
  • Mandatory minimum sentencing is only cost-effective in the case of heavy drug dealers.
  • Drug addiction treatment and standard sentencing terms are more effective at reducing drug consumption and drug-related crime than mandatory minimum sentences.

Life Shouldn’t End With an Arrest

If you are arrested for a nonviolent, drug-related crime, you may have the opportunity to participate in an alternative sentencing program run by your state or county government. Law enforcement agents, prosecutors and defense attorneys are often willing to help first-time offenders get treatment instead of sending them straight into the criminal justice system, where they will be exposed to violence and further substance abuse.

If you aren’t presented with the option of alternative sentencing, ask a court official or your lawyer whether a drug diversion program is available to you. Taking the first step toward getting help for drug addiction demonstrates that you’re motivated to pursue treatment and avoid crimes in the future. We can provide answers to your questions about drug rehabilitation and help you get in touch with treatment providers in your community.

To determine whether you’re a good candidate for alternative sentencing, you’ll be evaluated by a mental health professional. In many states, a case manager is assigned to each offender who participates in a drug diversion program. Alternative sentencing doesn’t mean you’re completely off the hook. Once your treatment plan has been approved by the court, you will have to prove that you’re committed to completing the program by:

  • Taking urine tests as ordered
  • Keeping appointments with counselors or probation officers as scheduled
  • Staying in touch with your case manager, who serves as a liaison to the court
  • Completing drug rehabilitation at an outpatient facility or residential treatment center
  • Attending self-help groups or 12-step meetings as required by your treatment plan

Drug diversion programs may also offer drug education for partners and families, vocational training for the offender and assistance with re-entry into the community after rehabilitation.

Looking to the Future

After completing an alternative sentencing program, the court may dismiss your case or reduce your sentence. But drug rehab is much more than an opportunity to avoid or minimize jail time; it’s a chance to start a new life on new terms. Diversion programs help both the offender and the public by treating the causes of addiction rather than dishing out punishment to offenders who’ve never had a chance to heal.

Alternative sentencing is a humane, cost-effective way to help communities reduce drug use and prevent drug-related crime.

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