Los Angeles County Drug Court

The first Los Angeles County drug court opened downtown as a pilot project in 1994. Judge Stephen Marcus -- a "true believer" in the concept -- presided over the court. Today, Los Angeles County drug courts have an astounding success rate. Only about 10% of those who graduate from the program go on to commit new offenses, as opposed to the 70% of repeat offenders that go through "traditional" L.A. criminal courts.

What's more is that the new offenses committed by graduates of drug court are rarely drug-related -- oftentimes only involving simple misdemeanors such as driving on a suspended or revoked driver's license.

In this article, our California criminal defense attorneys1 provide a summary of the Los Angeles County drug court system by addressing the following:

If, after reading this article, you would like more information, we invite you to contact us at Shouse Law Group.

judge's gavel
Los Angeles County drug courts have an astounding success rate

1. How does drug court work in Los Angeles County?

California drug courts were established with three basic goals in mind:

  1. to end drug abuse,
  2. to keep nonviolent criminals out of overcrowded jails/prisons, and
  3. to save money (*the average drug treatment costs range from $900 to $1,600 per person compared to an average cost of $5,000 per person for a minimal period of incarceration).2

Catering almost exclusively to nonviolent drug possession offenders, these courts encourage defendants to become sober in exchange for either

  • a dismissal of their criminal charges, or
  • the opportunity to participate in drug rehabilitation in lieu of a jail or prison sentence.

Los Angeles County drug court follows this same lead. It promotes sobriety by offering a collaborative, non-confrontational environment where the defendant's individual needs are truly given priority. At each appearance,

  • the judge,
  • the defendant,
  • a deputy public defender (or a private attorney),
  • a deputy district attorney,
  • and one or more drug counselors from the local drug treatment facility that works with the court

all discuss the defendant's case. They review the defendant's drug history, progress, set-backs and motivation for success in an open and honest manner. And as long as the defendant appears sincere in his/her efforts to become "clean", these parties will continue to try to help.

As two original L.A. County drug court judges explain,

"Drug Court philosophy recognizes that the optimum time for intervention and treatment is when the defendant is most highly motivated, i.e., when in custody or facing a state prison sentence. By securing the defendant's release from custody, and insisting on an immediate treatment plan, followed by early and frequent court-monitored progress reports, the program can achieve a period of sobriety and stabilization from which the defendant can begin the long-term process of treatment for the self-destructive tendencies of drug abuse, and for improving the defendant's self-esteem. The drug court judge must be part big brother, cheerleader and taskmaster."3

Los Angeles County drug court operates out of traditional L.A. criminal courthouses. Typically, one courtroom functions as a drug court at least a couple of mornings or afternoons a week. The judges assigned to these special divisions request these assignments, as they truly believe in the benefits of the program.

2. What are the eligibility requirements?

Los Angeles County drug court is run according to the basic state guidelines that govern all California drug courts. That said, drug court is much less formal than traditional court, and each county is given some flexibility in how it wishes to structure its program.

young girl depressed with someone offering a helping hand
The basic principle of drug court is that it is supposed to treat individuals who suffer from drug addiction as opposed to those who are charged with drug sales offenses

The basic principle of drug court is that it is supposed to treat individuals who suffer from drug addiction as opposed to those who are charged with drug sales offenses.  But because Los Angeles County drug court has quite a bit of autonomy, it has much broader flexibility in determining who is eligible to participate.

2.1. The benefit of Los Angeles County drug court

California's additional drug diversion programs, Proposition 36 and Penal Code 1000 PC deferred entry of judgment (discussed below under Section 4. Alternative California Drug Diversion Programs), are strictly regulated by statute. This means that there is very little flexibility within these programs as to who may or may not participate.

This means that, for example, a person who has been previously convicted of a sales offense is automatically excluded from these drug diversion programs. However, a Los Angeles County drug court may accept this person into its program if it appears that the individual has a long history of drug abuse and that the sales offense was committed solely as a means of supporting his/her own drug habit.

Similarly, let's say that an individual has been charged with felony theft and not an actual drug crime. If that individual only stole to support his/her drug habit, a Los Angeles County drug court judge may nevertheless admit that individual into the program.

Even an individual who has one or two violent misdemeanor convictions that took place many years ago...convictions that were based on drug-related incidents...may still be admitted into drug court at the judge's discretion. And if a judge is willing to dismiss a former serious or violent felony that constitutes a "strike" under California's Three Strikes law, L.A. drug court may accept that individual if it appears his/her current problems stem from a drug addiction.

2.2. Regarding pleas

If you are charged with a straight personal possession case...and it's your first criminal offense...chances are that you will not be required to enter a plea before you participate in Los Angeles County drug court.

This means that you will simply waive the time frame for your California arraignment and enter drug rehabilitation. If you graduate from the program, your charge(s) will be dismissed.

If, however, you

  1. have a prior drug and/or other criminal history, or
  2. are charged with something other than simple possession,

you will most likely be required to enter a guilty plea before you are allowed to participate in a Los Angeles County drug court. You will then be placed on probation for 36 months and will be required to complete drug court as a condition of probation. If you graduate, your charge(s) will be dismissed and your probation will be terminated. If you do not graduate, the judge will sentence you on your plea...possibly to county jail or state prison time.

3. What is the treatment regimen?

Again, because Los Angeles County drug court is part of the state's program, it incorporates the same type of graduated reward system that is common to all California drug courts. This system requires that each defendant

  • participates in therapy (both individually and in a group setting),
  • takes drug education classes,
  • participates in some type of educational or vocational training (if/where appropriate),
  • submits to frequent drug tests, and
  • completes any additional requirements that the court believes will be helpful to the offender.

As long as these basic objectives are met, how and when they are imposed is within each court's discretion.

3.1. Specific example -- Van Nuys drug court

At the Van Nuys Courthouse, for example, defendants are typically required to spend the first 45-90 days in a jail drug treatment facility before they will be allowed to participate in the additional programs offered by the drug court.

overhead view of Van Nuys and the 101
IMPACT takes the defendant off the streets and closely monitors each individual in an effort to provide a basic foundation for success

This "in-custody" program is run by the IMPACT drug and alcohol treatment center. Female inmates are treated at the Lynwood detention center, and male inmates are treated at the Wayside jail.

IMPACT takes the defendant off the streets and closely monitors each individual in an effort to provide a basic foundation for success. It is a very structured environment which serves as a basic model for the treatment that is to follow.

At the end of a defendant's stay, an IMPACT counselor tells the court whether he/she thinks the defendant

  • is benefiting from the program and should spend more time in the program,
  • should be transferred either to a residential or an outpatient facility (Van Nuys defendants receive their services through the Tarzana Treatment Center), or
  • is not benefiting from treatment and should simply remain incarcerated.

3.1.a. The "phases"

Once a defendant makes it through the IMPACT program, he/she officially enters the drug court and begins Phase 1 of the program.

Phase 1

During phase 1, the defendant must report back to court every one to four weeks. The individual participates in individual and group therapy for a minimum of three to four hours a day / five days a week. He/she must also attend a 12-step program such as Narcotics Anonymous on a daily basis.

Phase 1 defendants used to be required to submit to daily drug testing. Today, however, that testing takes place about three times a week due to the expense of daily testing and based on the fact that drugs will typically remain in one's system for at least a couple of days which means that they will still show up on a test.

Phase 1 is the longest phase, typically lasting about five months.

Phases 2 and 3

Phases 2 and 3 each last about three to four months (the entire "phase" portion of drug court lasts about one year). During this time, meetings are cut back, and court progress reports are reduced to about once every six weeks.

Because the court wants to ensure that "clean" individuals don't simply go back to their previous lifestyle once treatment is complete, phases 2 and 3 begin to incorporate outside activities. Most defendants participate in some type of schooling (either in a traditional educational institution such as a community college or in a vocational training center) or are required to work.

By the end of phase 3, the defendant is expected to be a full-time student or employee.

3.1.b. The end result

If the defendant successfully completes this regimen, he/she attends a formal "graduation", and the judge dismisses the charge(s). If the defendant can't...or more likely isn't willing to...complete the program, he/she faces

  • sentencing (if participation was pursuant to a guilty plea), or
  • arraignment (if participation was pursuant to a pre-plea negotiation).

The good news is that the Van Nuys drug court...as well as most of the other Los Angeles County drug courts...really want to see participants succeed. This means that as long as the defendants appear to be making a sincere effort to remain clean, the court will work with them.

An individual who "falls off" the program may have to be transferred out of an outpatient treatment center back into a residential program...or even back into the IMPACT program...multiple times before he/she graduates the program. Consequently, some people may participate in drug court for much longer than one year.

4. Are there alternatives to drug court?

Los Angeles County drug court...and, for that matter, California drug court...is definitely the most informal, most forgiving type of California drug diversion. California's other two programs, Proposition 36 and Penal Code 1000 PC California's deferred entry of judgment program, are much more structured and rigid.

And while each program has its differences, all three are based on the concepts that

  • drug addicts need help, and
  • those who pursue help...and are successful in attaining it...should be rewarded by having their criminal charge(s) dismissed.

4.1. California's Prop. 36

California Proposition 36 (more commonly referred to as "Prop. 36) is defined in Penal Code sections 1210-1210.1 and in 3063.1 PC (as it relates to individuals on parole).

Prop. 36 is a mandatory drug diversion program for those who qualify. If you are charged with very specific nonviolent drug possession offenses...and those charges are only your first or second criminal charges...you will automatically be enrolled in this program. If you have a prior conviction for a serious or violent felony...that is, a crime that qualifies as a "strike"...you are ineligible for this program - period.10

While on Prop. 36, you are placed on probation. If you successfully complete your treatment, your charge(s) will be dismissed, and your probation will be terminated. If you are disqualified, you may still be eligible to participate in drug court.

4.2. California Penal Code 1000 PC deferred entry of judgment

Penal Code 1000 PC California's pretrial diversion for drug offenses is very similar in form to Prop. 36 but is a bit less restrictive.11 This is because DEJ involves a certain amount of judicial discretion.

Unlike Prop. 36 which is automatic in its application, DEJ is a judge-based program. This means that it is the judge who determines whether or not a defendant is suitable for the program. A defendant who is rejected from DEJ...or who "fails out" may still be eligible to participate in California drug court.

Penal Code 1000 PC can also last longer than Prop. 36. DEJ is an 18-month to three-year program, whereas Prop. 36 is a maximum two-year program. And because DEJ does not involve formal probation, the judge does not impose any additional restrictions on your participation. Consequently, the requirements for DEJ are less onerous than Prop. 36.

As Burbank criminal defense attorney Darrell York12 explains, "Because each of these California drug diversion programs operates in a different manner...and according to a different structure...be sure to discuss all of your options with a California drug crimes defense attorney who understands the intricacies involved in each. And...if you are an L.A. county resident...be sure to consult with a local attorney who is familiar with the Los Angeles County drug court who can explain first-hand what you face if you participate in this particular program."

Call us for help...

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Call us for help at (855) LAW-FIRM

For questions about Los Angeles County drug court, or to discuss your case confidentially with one of our California criminal defense attorneys, do not hesitate to contact us at Shouse Law Group.

We have local criminal law offices in and around Los Angeles, San Diego, Orange County, Riverside, San Bernardino, Ventura, San Jose, Oakland, the San Francisco Bay area, and several nearby cities.

Additionally, our Las Vegas Nevada criminal defense attorneys are available to answer any questions about Nevada's drug court programs. For more information, we invite you to contact our local attorneys at one of our Nevada law offices, located in Reno and Las Vegas.13


Legal References:

  1. Our California drug crimes defense attorneys have local Los Angeles law offices in Beverly Hills, Burbank, Glendale, Lancaster, Long Beach, Los Angeles, Pasadena, Pomona, Torrance, Van Nuys, West Covina, and Whittier. We have additional law offices conveniently located throughout the state in Orange County, San Diego, Riverside, San Bernardino, Ventura, San Jose, Oakland, the San Francisco Bay area, and several nearby cities.

  2. California Department of Alcohol and Drug Programs - Drug Courts Overview.

    See also California Court Information - Drug Court Benefits.

  3. Drug Courts Take Aim at the Drug Problem.

  4. Health and Safety Code 11377 

    See also Health and Safety Code 11350 

  5. Health and Safety Code 11357 

  6. Health and Safety Code 11550 

  7. Health and Safety Code 11351 

  8. Health and Safety Code 11352

  9. Health and Safety Code 11360 

  10. California Penal Code 1210.1  See also People v. Davis (2000) 79 Cal.App.4th 251, 256-257. 

  11. California Penal Code 1000 

  12. Burbank criminal defense lawyer Darrell York uses his former experience as a Glendale Police Officer to represents clients at the Ventura Hall of Justice, the Van Nuys courthouse, the Pasadena courthouse, the Burbank courthouse, the Glendale courthouse, the Lancaster courthouse, the San Fernando courthouse, and the Criminal Courts Building.

  13. Please feel free to contact our Las Vegas Nevada criminal defense attorneys Michael Becker and Neil Shouse for any questions relating to Nevada's drug court and diversion programs. Our Nevada law offices are located in Reno and Las Vegas.

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