What are Drug Courts and How Do They Work?

Virginia's drug courts are specialized courts within the judicial branch that provide alternative punishments to many low-risk offenders.

In 2019, the state of Virginia processed over 74,000 drug-related offenses. However, not all of these offenses went through the standard court process.

Instead, many of these cases were handled by Virginia’s drug court system.

Also known as drug treatment courts, drug courts represent a specialized judicial process designed to reduce recidivism in drug offenders.

In this article, we’ll go over what a drug court actually is, and how it differs from the standard process. We’ll also talk about why someone charged with a drug crime might seek out a drug court.

What is a Virginia Drug Court?

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In Virginia, the phrase “drug court” refers to a specialized court docket for certain drug offenders. Think of it like traffic court, but for minor, first time criminal drug offenses.

Normally, the judicial system attempts to discourage repeat offenses by imposing harsh fines and jail time on those convicted of drug crime.

In a drug court, however, the focus is on alternate methods of rehabilitation. These methods will vary by court.

However, all Virginia drug courts collaborate closely with treatment professionals to provide process-based solutions for defendants.

For this reason, drug courts tend to provide closer, more individualized supervision than a standard probation program.

This makes drug treatment courts a strong option for individuals who want long-term solutions to their problems with drug addiction.

In addition to specialized treatment methods, drug courts can also employ the powers of a standard court.

In other words, drug courts can still charge individuals with crimes, and drug court judges can still issue sentences.

The difference, however, is that drug courts treat these powers as a last resort.

Instead, most drug courts prefer to work through community drug counseling programs.

Who is eligible for drug treatment court programs?

According to Virginia law, drug courts may decide on their own eligibility criteria.

However, the law does disqualify offenders who have been found guilty of violent offenses within the past ten years. This applies to both adults and juveniles.

The Henrico country drug court, for example, provides a relatively straightforward list of drug court eligibility requirements.

In order to be eligible for participation in the Henrico country drug treatment court, you must:

  • Live in the Richmond area, and have sufficient resources to complete a drug treatment program. For example, you need access to reliable transportation.
  • Be approved in advance by the state attorney overseeing your case. Your lawyer can help you request approval.
  • Plead guilty to the charges against you in Circuit Court as part of the drug court entry process.
  • Not have any prior violent crime convictions, drug distribution, a firearm-related offense, or any predatory sex crime with a child as the victim.
  • Not have other pending charges (other than traffic infractions) or supervision obligations from any other court.

Finally, the Henrico country drug court only accepts entrants who are facing one or more years of jail time.

How Do Virginia Drug Courts Work?

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Each Virginia drug treatment court relies on a different process. However, all share a goal of providing personalized treatment to individuals with addiction.

Once again, Henrico country’s drug court will prove as a useful example. However, keep in mind that other drug courts can vary significantly.


Virginia drug courts typically require some combination of the following from their participants:

  • Court appearances. In Henrico county, these occur once a week.
  • Employment seeking and reporting. Drug courts strongly emphasize the importance of finding and keeping a steady job for their participants. Most also offer employment counseling to help achieve this goal.
  • Regular attendance at 12-step or other substance abuse treatment groups.
  • Adherence to curfews and driving restrictions, depending upon the individual’s needs.

Most importantly, Virginia drug courts rely on frequent meetings with counselors and court officials. Many also employ regular, unannounced home inspections.

Keep in mind that the court can change these requirements to suit individual participants.

For example, the court may reschedule an individual’s mandatory court appearances in order to avoid employment conflicts.

Enforcement Mechanisms

Drug courts also use different types of sanctions to enforce the above rules. These will also vary by area, but most courts use some combination of the following:

  • Warnings from the bench.
  • Admonishment from peers in treatment programs.
  • More regular intervention from drug court personnel.
  • Community service.
  • Increased curfew or driving restrictions.
  • Temporary work-release assignment.
  • Termination from the program.


Finally, drug courts may use a wide variety of incentives to encourage compliance with the program standards.

These will vary considerably from one court to another, to an even greater extent than requirements or enforcement mechanisms.

However, they generally take the form of exemption from certain reporting requirements, lessened curfew restrictions, and the like.

Are Drug Courts Effective?

Research has shown that drug courts are incredibly effective at reducing recidivism rates.

For example, a recent study found that, on average, about 53% of drug offenders who went through the standard court process re-offended afterward.

On the other hand, only 17% of those who entered into drug treatment court did so.

Drug courts have also proven effective in helping offenders find employment.

That’s because drug courts offer comprehensive treatment programs without the stigma of incarceration.

In addition, many drug courts work directly with local employers to help their participants find steady work opportunities.


woman talking in a rehabilitation session, group clapping for her.

For drug offenders with addiction problems, drug treatment courts offer a unique opportunity.

While attending a drug court does require you to plead guilty at the outset, it may prove a better long-term solution than the regular court system.

In some jurisdictions, a person’s graduation from the program could result in the reduction of the charge or even dismissal of it.

If you are facing possible jail time due to a drug sentence, ask your lawyer if there is a drug court in your area.

Together, you and your attorney can go over your options in-depth to choose the best solution for your situation.

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