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Does Court-Ordered Substance Abuse Treatment Actually Work?

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Court-Ordered Substance Abuse Treatment
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When friends or family members know someone who is struggling with addiction, they may be desperate to take whatever steps possible to get help for their addicted loved one. This may involve a private conversation or a staged intervention. However, when these types of interventions fail, the next option is to try to force someone to go to rehab.

Even though court-ordered substance abuse treatment is an option, many people hesitate to pursue this route out of fear that treatment won’t work. This common misconception can stop people from getting access to the help they desperately need. The truth is, under the right circumstances, court-ordered rehab really does work.

What is Court-Ordered Substance Abuse Treatment?

Court-ordered treatment refers to legally mandating a person to attend a drug and alcohol rehab program. There are two basic types of court-mandated rehab:

Over 50% of offenders in United States prisons and jails struggle with substance use disorder.[1] Some of these individuals, particularly those with drug-related charges, are able to make plea deals with the judge and prosecution which involve court-ordered rehab. Even though these people are facing prosecution or re-incarceration if they leave rehab early or relapse, studies have shown that this type of forced rehab can be effective for many incarcerated individuals.[1]

Involuntary Commitment Orders for People With Substance Use Disorder

The second type of forced addiction treatment is involuntary commitment orders. Nearly all 50 states have some kind of involuntary commitment law where friends, family members, police officers, doctors, and mental health specialists can force someone who is using drugs to go to treatment. After petitioning the court, providing proof of the individual’s addiction, and a mental health evaluation, eligible individuals may be mandated to a certain number of days at a drug rehabilitation facility.

One study compared individuals who were mandated to treatment and those who entered voluntarily. Although people who were court-ordered to complete substance abuse treatment were less motivated at the time they started treatment, they were actually more likely to complete treatment compared to those who entered the program voluntarily.[1]

Court-Ordered Substance Abuse Treatment

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Understanding the Principles of Effective Addiction Treatment

Rehab can be effective for anyone–even those who have been forced into it–if the program meets all of the principles of an effective treatment program. According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, the principles of effective addiction treatment are:[3]

  • Having counselors who recognize that addiction is a complex but treatable disease that affects brain function and behavior.
  • Individualized treatment programs that target each patients’ unique needs.
  • Treatment needs to be readily available.
  • Effective treatment attends to multiple needs of the individual, not just his or her drug abuse.
  • Treatment should last for at least 90 days.
  • Behavioral therapies—including individual, family, or group counseling—are utilized
  • Medications are an important part of rehabilitation for many patients, especially when combined with counseling and other behavioral therapies.
  • A person’s treatment plan must be evaluated and modified as necessary to make sure it meets his or her changing needs.
  • Many individuals with substance use disorder also have other mental health conditions.
  • Medically assisted detox is only the first stage of addiction treatment and must be followed by a comprehensive rehab program.
  • Treatment does not need to be voluntary to be effective. 
  • Drug use during treatment must be monitored continuously, as lapses during treatment do occur.
  • Treatment programs should test patients for the presence of HIV/AIDS, hepatitis B and C, tuberculosis, and other infectious diseases as well as provide risk-reduction counseling and linking patients to treatment if necessary.

Pay special attention to number 11, “treatment does not need to be voluntary to be effective.” Court-ordered substance abuse treatment, whether through involuntary commitment or criminal charges, really does work.

Is Court-Ordered Substance Abuse Treatment Really Effective?

Just because a person was unwilling to accept help themselves doesn’t mean forcing them into rehab won’t be effective. Research reported by the National Institute on Drug Abuse found that most people who get into and stay in rehab stop using drugs, engage in less criminal activity, and are able to improve their psychological, social, and occupational functioning.[2]

Still, between 40-60% of patients relapse–some of whom were forced into rehab and some who sought help voluntarily. Relapse doesn’t mean the treatment didn’t work. It simply means there are aspects of a person’s treatment plan that need to be adjusted. This is a similar treatment approach that is taken for other chronic diseases such as diabetes and hypertension. A person’s treatment plan needs continual evaluation and modification in order for it to be successful.[2]

A visit to rehab doesn’t guarantee any individual a lifetime of sobriety. What it does do, however, is help open patients’ eyes to the reality of their addictions. Addiction treatment centers separate people from substances long enough to give them the ability to make a sound decision for their care. Therapists also help bring awareness to patients’ maladaptive coping mechanisms and the causes of their substance abuse. Additionally, patients are introduced to all kinds of resources that can help them improve their lives.

Sometimes, even for the most reluctant individuals, simply staying in an environment such as this is enough to make them want to get sober.

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Here at Woburn Wellness Addiction Treatment, we’re dedicated to giving each of our patients the individualized attention and care they need to get better–no matter the circumstances. If you or a loved one are struggling with addiction, there’s no reason to hesitate to get the help you need. Call now to see if our addiction treatment programs are right for you.


  1. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3578041/
  2. https://www.drugabuse.gov/publications/principles-drug-addiction-treatment-research-based-guide-third-edition/frequently-asked-questions/how-effective-drug-addiction-treatment
  3. https://www.drugabuse.gov/publications/principles-drug-addiction-treatment-research-based-guide-third-edition/principles-effective-treatment
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Addiction treatment specialist

Medically Reviewed By

Inessa Maloney, MS, LMHC Clinical Director
Learn about Inessa Maloney

Inessa Maloney, MS, LMHC has been dedicated to the mental health and substance abuse field for a decade, providing her expertise to guarantee quality and accuracy.

  • Specializes in outpatient services with a focus on substance abuse
  • Expertise in reality-based therapy, CBT/DBT, and motivational interviewing
  • Holds a Master’s Degree in Professional Counseling
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