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Developing Phases in Drug/DWI Courts

Why have phases?

Virtually all adult drug courts and DWI courts have phases to provide structure for the program and recognize benchmarks along the way to graduation. Drug/DWI Courts tend to be long, rigorous programs, lasting one to two years. Giving the program structure gives the participant bite size pieces to tear off and digest. It also allows the team to measure—somewhat objectively—how well the participant is progressing through the program requirements.

Phases are based on clinical needs and the prognostic risk factors found in the local court’s population. Phases give the offenders structure and visible steps to measure progress. Phases are completed by using objective criteria to move the offender along the road to a mature recovery and a pro-social lifestyle. The criteria may be either specific objective achievements or there may be a point system to measure readiness for phase advancement. This provides the offender a way to measure individual growth and success in the program.

Check out the Drug Court Judges Benchbook

What are the different phases? (See Section 2.22 of the Drug Court Judges Benchbook)

The first phase typically is for stabilization and introduction to treatment. Requirements may simply be to complete assessment, develop a treatment plan and start going to treatment. The participant would be expected to obtain a stable living environment and get acquainted with self-help/peer support groups (See Section 4.13 in the Drug Court Judges Benchbook).  The team should decide what percentage of meetings may be missed and still move to Phase II. It would be unrealistic to expect a perfect negative urine regime at this time. For the participant in Phase I, sobriety is a distal goal and any sustained abstinence should be celebrated. Failures, evidenced by positive urines, should receive a low sanction (certainly not jail time) and most likely will include a therapeutic adjustment such as increasing treatment or testing. (See Ch. 7 on Applying Incentives and Sanctions in the Drug Court Judges Benchbook)

Phase II would focus on initiation of abstinence and the offender would be expected to start providing a string of negative tests. A minimum number of days of consecutive drug-negative urine samples (typically 30-90 days) would be expected to advance to Phase III. Community service and other court obligations should be started at this time.

Phase III should hone in on pro-social, alcohol and other drug free activities, job seeking, education/GED and other ancillary services. The final phase concentrates on relapse prevention and a pro-social life without the structure of the court. A participant should be introduced to the Alumni Association at this time in order to transition from the highly structured Court to “life outside.” Court obligations are gradually reduced throughout the phases so that the offender has time to accomplish all the other activities. Problem-solving courts have to integrate transportation issues into the plan and, if allowed by law, obtaining a valid driver’s license should be a requirement in one of the later phases. Testing for prohibited substances is never reduced throughout the program. Testing requirements should continue at a minimum of two times per week on a random basis. The best way to ruin a good program and all the progress an offender has made is to have them begin to drink or use again and not be able to discover it.

Court Phases and Treatment Levels are Different

Court phases and treatment levels are not necessarily the same.
Court phases and treatment levels are not necessarily the same.

Court phases and treatment levels are not necessarily the same. Court phases provide a map toward graduation. The requirements for program graduation should be used to set up phases and the team must decide which goals need to be accomplished in each phase. There should be progressive goals as the offender moves forward and they should be based on what can realistically be expected of each offender in different parts of the recovery process.   Often there is confusion between court phases and treatment levels. A court phase sets forth a set of expectations that each participant is required to accomplish prior to moving to the next phase.

On the other hand, treatment levels are not tied to the court process. Treatment is based on a clinical assessment and is individualized for each client. Movement through treatment levels is based on the client’s treatment progress. The treatment level shows clinical progress.   Treatment programs may also require not only treatment and peer support participation but also payment of program fees. In order to move from Phase III and graduate, it is common for participants to fill out graduation petitions setting forth their future plans to maintain their sobriety and a crime-free lifestyle. Some courts also require petitions to advance phases.

Drug courts’ foundational document is the Key Components. Component #4 is: “Drug courts provide access to a continuum of alcohol, drug, and other related treatment and rehabilitation services.” DWI Courts are governed by a foundational document – The Ten Guiding Principles of DWI Courts. Principle #7 concerns case management providing “a coordinated team strategy and seamless collaboration across the treatment and justice systems.” Thus, the Drug/DWI court team is aware of, but does not necessarily have a say in, the level of treatment received by the participant. Changing a level of care should never be used as a reward or sanction; it should only be done when recommended by a clinician using neutral placement criteria and an assessment. (See Section 4.21 of the Drug Court Judges Benchbook

The team should ensure all service efforts are monitored, connected, and in synchrony.

Phase Advancement

Phases give the offenders structure and visible steps to measure progress.
Phases give the offenders structure and visible steps to measure progress.

Defining proximal (immediate) and distal (aspirational) goals is important for phase advancement. It would be unrealistic, for instance, to require a long period of sobriety to move into Phase II. An alcoholic in as much trouble as it takes to get into DWI Court simply cannot instantly stop drinking nor can a high risk/high need drug offender stop using immediately. In Phase I, abstinence would be a distal goal but attending all court session and treatment meetings on time would be a proximal goal as would following curfews. Telling the truth is always a proximal goal as well.

Phase advancement can be considered a recognition that a distal goal has become proximal. Criteria for movement from Phase I to Phase II then would be meeting the proximal goals for stabilization and initiation of treatment. Phase II would require more distal goals be met such as job seeking or educational requirements as well as longer periods of negative tests. As distal goals become proximal so must the consequences for failing to achieve those goals. Phase advancements, often marked in a ceremonial way with certificates of completion and the like, also provide an educational opportunity for the other offenders. The judge points out what has been accomplished so far and what must be done to continue to do well.

Court program requirements may include attending treatment and peer support meetings, timeliness for program and court appearances, negative alcohol and other drug screens, paying all fees and costs, installation of an ignition interlock or wearing a continuous alcohol monitoring device, curfews and remaining crime free. The court may also provide ancillary services in which the offender would be expected to participate such as parenting classes, education, ESL classes, and literacy and numeracy programs.

How Long Should Each Phase Be?

There is no one correct sequence or number of phases, and courts should develop their own criteria based on considerations such as their target population. Other considerations are cultural competency of programs, co-occurring mental health issues (teams may expect at least half of their participants will have a second mental health diagnosis) (See “Six Steps to Improve Your Drug Court Outcomes for Adults with Co-Occurring Disorders”) and gender differences.

Best practices require a minimum of testing twice a week

Best Practices

Best practices require a minimum of testing twice a week but courts would be well advised to test daily if there are the means to do so. This is easiest for alcohol if the offender has an ignition interlock or continuous alcohol monitoring device.  The offender should come to court for a status report every two weeks in Phase I and in later phases, once a month at a minimum. A vigorous community corrections program that includes home visits is highly recommended. Research shows at least 90 days of sobriety should be required before the offender is ready for graduation.

Memorialize the Phases

The importance of courts’ policies and procedures being in both a manual and the client handbook and/or contract cannot be overemphasized.   Not only will the court’s decisions be less likely to be challenged on due process grounds but having clear, simple, brief and understandable standards for each phase gives notice to the offender of what is required. A policies and procedures manual is the best institutional memory when personnel rotate into the problem-solving court.


Old courts that need a tune-up and new courts just developing their policies with have many decisions to make about phase advancement and graduation requirements. Luckily, there are lots of resources to assist them. In addition to those already cited, the team should follow Adult Drug Court Best Practice Standards Vol I & II.  Another great resource is the National Drug Court Resource Center as that has many forms, incentives and sanctions lists and other helpful materials that have been developed over the years. Drug/DWI Court people are helpful and willing to share their experiences in order to help other practitioners and certain courts have been designated as learning centers or academy courts. After all, we’re all in this together and program excellence is the goal for all.

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