It has been widely reported the criminal prosecution and imprisonment tends to harden criminals, especially non-violent offenders who may be suffering from drug addiction. There is a nationwide-trend to find less damaging methods to deal with low-level drug offenders that not only keep them out of the criminal justice system but help them find treatment for their substance abuse issues. Pennsylvania has a number of these diversionary programs, which includes Philadelphia's drug court program.
In order to demonstrate the value of drug court problems, it may be helpful first to review what happens when people are charged with drug crimes. Convictions for drug crimes carry severe penalties in Pennsylvania, even if it's only a first-time simple possession charge. If you’ve been charged with a drug crime, here are the potential penalties you may be facing if you’re convicted:
Possession of a controlled substance:
Possession with intent to deliver:
Possession of drug paraphernalia:
As you can see, even minor drug charges carry serious potential consequences that could change your life forever.
If you are convicted of a drug crime, you are probably facing time in jail and possibly a fine. In addition to these penalties, however, there are other potential consequences - damage to your reputation, loss of employment, and difficulty in getting hired.
It’s also recognized that prison is not a healthy environment for non-violent offenders. People who spend time in prison are likely to have trouble with the law in the future. If you’re suffering from addiction, prison does not help you deal with and overcome your problems. Some believe that prison is likely to lead to further addiction.
Recognizing that criminal prosecution is not always the best option, Philadelphia first began its drug court program in 1997. Drug court is considered a diversionary program, meaning that it is an alternative to the traditional criminal justice process. It gives low-level drug and alcohol offenders the option of entering a structured treatment and rehabilitation program instead of facing prosecution. Its purpose is fourfold:
1. To identify candidates who could benefit from rehabilitative programs;
2. To prevent or reduce future criminal activity among low-level drug offenders;
3. To conserve judicial and prosecutorial resources by allowing them to better focus their efforts on major cases;
4. To provide additional resources to candidates in addition to structured court supervision.
Drug court facilitates a non-adversarial process whereby the judge, defense counsel, the prosecution, and treatment professionals work together to help the candidate address their substance abuse issues.
Philadelphia’s program actually followed a nationwide trend, which has resulted in diversionary programs in all 50 states. As part of this process, the Department of Justice and the National Association of Drug Court Professionals developed “10 Key Components” for the establishment of diversionary programs, which have guided the creation of programs across the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania. Below are the components that form the foundation of Philadelphia’s drug court:
1. Integration of treatment options and justice system case processing.
2. A non-adversarial approach to promote public safety and protect the defendant’s rights.
3. Early identification and placement of eligible candidates.
4. Access to a spectrum of treatment and rehabilitation services.
5. Frequent drug tests to ensure that participants are abstaining from drugs or alcohol.
6. Structured monitoring to ensure that participants are complying with requirements.
7. Continued judicial interaction with participants.
8. Evaluation and monitoring to ensure that program goals are effective and being met.
9. Continuing education for all parties to promote planning, implementation, and operation of the program.
10. Formation of partnerships between drug courts, public agencies, and other community-based organization to promote support and awareness.
Working from those ten key components, drug courts across Pennsylvania then developed drug court programs that best meet their needs. Each drug court has specific criteria that defendants must meet in order to be placed in their program. Here are the three principal criteria that determine whether you qualify to be placed in Philadelphia’s drug court:
1. Candidates must be non-violent drug offenders. If you are also charged with a violent felony or have a history of violent crime, you will not be able to qualify for drug court.
2. Candidates can have no more than two previous juvenile adjudications or adult convictions. The program is primarily geared towards first-time offenders or people who do not have a lengthy criminal history.
3. Candidates must plead “no contest” (nolo contendere) to the charges. Your plea is held by the court until you successfully complete the program. Once completed, your plea is withdrawn with prejudice and your case is closed. This means that you will not have a conviction on your record.
The program employed by the Philadelphia drug court takes place in four phases over 12 months. Throughout the 12-month period, the program implements the following measures:
Upon completion of the program, the participants’ original plea of "no contest" is withdrawn, and the case is closed. If the participant remains drug and alcohol-free and doesn't get arrested within the 12-month period following completion, the charges are completely expunged.
If you’ve been charged with a drug crime, you need to understand all of the options that you have and someone to help you make the right choice. Criminal defense attorney Lauren Wimmer is dedicated to making sure her clients understand all of their options so that they can get a fair result. If you’d like to schedule a free consultation to discuss your case, contact Wimmer Criminal Defense by calling 215-712-1212 or by filling out our online contact form.