Incentives and Sanctions

The use of incentives and sanctions is one of the most important, and misunderstood, elements of the treatment court model. The following resources are designed to assist your program with the proper development and implementation of incentives and sanctions.

Making the Most of Incentives and Sanctions

NDCI Fact Sheet to help you understand the proper implementation of incentives and sanctions.

Incentives and Sanctions Training

On-site training to teach the principles relevant to behavioral management and change and techniques for transferring those principles to the treatment court context.

NADCP's Adult Drug Court Best Practice Standards addresses incentives, sanctions and therapeutic adjustments in Standards IV.

Standard IV states: Consequences for participants’ behavior are predictable, fair, consistent, and administered in accordance with evidence-based principles of effective behavior modification.

  • Guidance includes:
  • Advance Notice
  • Opportunity to be Heard
  • Equivalent Consequences
  • Professional Demeanor
  • Progressive Sanctions
  • Licit Addictive or Intoxicating Substances
  • Therapeutic Adjustments
  • Incentivizing Productivity
  • Phase Promotion
  • Jail Sanctions
  • Termination
  • Consequences of Graduation and Termination

SAMPLE INCENTIVES AND SANCTIONS

The following lists of incentives and sanctions were collected from hundreds of treatment courts around the country during NDCI training events. This compilation is intended to encourage treatment courts to think more broadly and creatively about the types of responses they might provide in their own programs. NDCI faculty grouped the responses into conceptually similar categories and in approximate order of magnitude or severity.

These lists are not intended to be exhaustive. Treatment courts are encouraged to develop their own responses and to gauge the effectiveness of those responses within their programs.

The lists do NOT include therapeutic responses or adjustments to participants’ treatment regimens. Treatment adjustments should be based on participants’ clinical needs as determined by qualified treatment professionals, and should not be used to reward desired behaviors or to punish undesired behaviors.

Finally, the lists do not refer to the specific target behaviors that the incentives and sanctions should be used to address. For example, research indicates lower magnitude rewards should ordinarily be provided for relatively simpler (or proximal) achievements than for difficult (or distal) achievements. Deciding on the most appropriate magnitude of a response to a particular behavior is beyond the scope of this document, but is addressed in several NDCI publications.

Please Note: The responses are annotated to offer helpful tips and cautions, garnered from professional experience and research findings, to assist the reader to effectively apply the responses. To view the annotation, click on the highlighted specific response in the chart below.

To download a printable version of the annotated version of the document, click here.

INCENTIVES

Low Moderate High

Verbal Praise

Reduced Supervision Requirements

  • Less frequent probation appointments
  • Less frequent status hearings

Supervised Day Trips

  • Fishing trips
  • Movie outings
  • Intramural sports
  • Sporting events
  • Bowling tournaments
  • Recovery Olympics

Small Tangible Rewards

  • Bookmarks
  • Bus tokens
  • Phone cards
  • Healthy foods (e.g., juice, tea, granola bars, fruit, trail mix) 
  • Coffee mugs 
  • Birthday or holiday cards
  • Books or children’s books
  • Planners or calendars
  • School supplies
  • Toiletries
  • Underwear
  • Frames for certificates
  • Picture albums
  • Serenity Stones
  • T-Shirts with inspirational sayings or quotes

Reduced Community Restrictions

  • Later curfews
  • Relaxed area restrictions 

Travel Privileges

  • Weekend pass out of county
  • Phone check-ins may be required

Recognition in Court

  • Handshake from the judge
  • Round of applause in court
  • Certificate of accomplishment for achieving a clinically important milestone

 

Enhanced Milieu Status

  • Appointment as in-program peer mentor
  • Assistant group leader
  • Self-help group facilitator
  • All-Star List or Dean’s List

Large Tangible Rewards

  • Commemorative gift issues of the “Big Book” or other readings
  • Concert tickets
  • Sports tickets
  • Autographs (musicians and actors frequently offer these as a public service to programs treating addiction)
  • Tattoo removal
  • Yoga or Tai Chi classes
  • Health club memberships
  • Savings bonds
  • Home improvement or car repair assistance
  • Waiver of fines or fees
  • School or tuition fees
  • Donated education courses

Symbolic Rewards

  • Sobriety chips
  • Sobriety key chains
  • Sobriety tokens
  • “Live Strong” bracelets
  • Copies of addiction readings such as the AA “Big Book” 

Moderate Tangible Rewards

  • Gift certificates (typically $5 to $20 value)
  • Movies passes or movie rentals
  • Admission passes to amusement parks or sporting events
  • Introductory memberships to spas or gyms
  • Haircuts
  • Makeup or cosmetic sessions
  • Groceries
  • Work or school clothing or shoes 
  • Bowling, skating or other recreational passes
  • Quilts, blankets, towels
  • Watches
  • Calling cards
  • Gas cards

Point Systems

  • Points or vouchers for phase advancement or other major accomplishments, which may be redeemed for a substantial prize at graduation

Posted Accomplishments

  • Pro-sobriety artwork or writing essays displayed in the courtroom, treatment program or probation office
  • Photos of participants receiving GEDs or other awards
  • Letters of commendation from employers or teachers

Fishbowl Drawings 

  • Chits from a fishbowl that may earn tangible or non-tangible incentives of varying magnitudes.

Ambassadorships 

  • Represent the Drug Court to outside agencies, such as church groups, legislators or the media.

Written Commendations

  • Letters of Attainment from the judge
  • Progress Reports or Report Cards from treatment providers or probation officers

Self-Improvement Services 

  • Resume writing assistance 
  • Dress for Success
  • Job interview preparation classes
  • Pre-vocational assistance
  • GED, literacy, or educational assistance
  • Public speaking pointers
  • Meal preparation or nutritional classes
  • Yoga or exercise classes

Commencement Ceremony

  • Robes and “Pomp and Circumstance”
  • Flowers, plaques, and framed diplomas
  • Pictures taken with the staff and judge
  • Delivering thankfulness speeches
  • Hearing speeches from local or national celebrities and politicians  
  • Words of redemption and congratulation from the arresting police officer
  • Media coverage or interviews bearing witness to graduates’ success
 

Supervised Social Gatherings

  • Picnics or parties
  • Sober dances
  • Recovery games or activities
  • Picture day (formal portraits taken)
  • Family day (food and games provided to invited family members and friends)

Legal Incentives

  • Dismissal of the charge(s) or vacation of a guilty plea
  • Reduction in the charge(s)
  • Reduction of the sentence
  • Avoidance of jail or prison 
  • Curtailment of a probation term or “tail”
  • Consolidation of multiple probationary terms
  • Expungement of the arrest or conviction record

SANCTIONS

Low Moderate High

Verbal Admonishments

Increased Supervision Requirements

  • More frequent probation appointments
  • More frequent status hearings

Day Reporting 

  • Several hours per day or week at probation office or other reporting center probation appointments

Letters of Apology 

 

*Tape recordings may be used in lieu of writing assignments for participants who are illiterate or have difficulty writing.

 

Electronic Surveillance

  • Anklet monitor
  • SCRAM® device
  • Car interlock device

Essay Assignments

*Tape recordings may be used in lieu of writing assignments for participants who are illiterate or have difficulty writing.

  • Definition of recovery 
  • Relapse triggers
  • Drug refusal skills
  • Managing cravings
  • Lying and dishonesty
  • The disease of addiction
  • The impact of addiction on the family
  • The role of treatment
  • The role of peer support groups

Useful Community Service

  • Set up for or clean up after treatment sessions, court sessions or graduation ceremonies
  • Wash police cars 
  • Clean the jail, courthouse, treatment facility or probation office 
  • Pick up trash on the roadside
  • Sweep gyms or other facilities 
  • Clean graveyards
  • Clean animal shelters 
  • Assist with Habitat for Humanity
  • Work in a soup kitchen
  • Staff community events
  • Clean Sheriff’s horse stalls

Home Detention

  • Phone monitored curfew

Daily Activity Logs  

  • Monitor and report on adherence to pre-set daily routine

Monetary Fines or Fees

 

Flash Jail Sanctions 

  • Ideally 1 to 5 days
  • May be served on weekend or other pre-planned time

Journaling

  • Monitor and report on thoughts, feelings and attitudes associated with drug use or antisocial activities

 

Holding Cell

  • Remain at courthouse and return for status review at end of court session

Termination  

 

Life Skills Assignments

  • Open a bank account 
  • Obtain a state identification card
  • Reinstate a drivers license
  • Enroll in GED, H.S. or college classes 
  • Prepare for or conduct a job search

 

 

 

“Jury Box” Observation

  • Observe Drug Court or other court proceedings
   

Increased Community Restrictions

  • Earlier curfew
  • Increased person or area restrictions
   

Team Round-Tables 

  • Team provides feedback and direction from multiple perspectives
   

Verbal praise is provided for most routine accomplishments in Drug Courts, including timely attendance at appointments and participation in treatment-related discussions or activities. This is especially important during Phase 1 of the program, when participants have a relatively harder time satisfying basic expectations.  

All team members should be prepared to offer praise at or near the time that accomplishments are achieved; for example, immediately after a productive counseling session or a drug-negative urine test. The judge later reinforces the praise during court hearings.

Participants who have made substantial progress in Drug Court are commonly incentivized by reducing their supervision obligations. For example, they may be permitted to attend less frequent probation appointments or status hearings. Typically, supervision adjustments are made when participants advance to a higher phase in the program. 

Research cautions that Drug Courts should not hold status hearings less frequently than every 4-6 weeks until participants are in the final phase of the program and have initiated their continuing-care plans. Moreover, treatment services should only be reduced based on a clinical determination that it is therapeutically indicated to do so. Finally, drug testing should not be reduced until after other treatment and supervision services have been reduced, and it is reliably determined that drug use has not recurred as a result.

Day trips differ from the social gatherings described earlier, in that they are held off premises.  Typically, they are reserved for participants in the last phase of the program who are being recognized for leaving the “offender” role and assuming a role of “citizen.”

Many participants in Drug Courts are unaccustomed to earning positive reinforcement and respond well to low-magnitude rewards. The rewards are typically given for basic accomplishments during the early phases of the program, such as attending a full week of counseling appointments.  The goal is to instill hope and encourage compliance with the treatment regimen.

The rewards are typically structured so as to increase participants’ involvement in productive activities, and may contain pro-sobriety messages, toll-free phone numbers for local treatment services, or the Drug Court’s logo.

Many Drug Courts impose curfews and area restrictions on participants as a condition of entry into the program. After participants reliably engage in treatment and achieve a sustained period of abstinence, they may be rewarded by reducing those community restrictions. For example, curfews may be extended from 8:00 pm to 10:00 pm. 

In anticipation of commencement from the program, participants’ travel restrictions may be formally lifted, allowing them to leave the county or state for a weekend, extended weekend, or week-long interval.  Typically, phone-ins are required to ensure continued contact with the treatment program or supervision officers.   

Self-improvement services differ from the routine interventions provided to all participants. These are personalized services designed to help participants excel in productive lives, and are used to highlight substantial progress participants have made towards assuming pro-social life roles.  The implicit message is that the program is investing in the participant’s future accomplishments. 

Virtually all Drug Courts put great thought and effort into their commencement or graduation ceremonies. 

Participants who have begun to assume appropriate life roles may earn inclusion in social gatherings coordinated by the Drug Court staff. These events are designed to provide healthy recreational experiences and opportunities for participants to practice appropriate social interactions in non-drug-related situations.

Commencement from Drug Court virtually always leads to substantial legal incentives.

Verbal admonishments may be delivered by any staff member and are ideally delivered at or near the time an infraction has occurred; for example, immediately after a missed counseling appointment or drug-positive urine test. The judge later reinforces the admonishment during court hearings.   

Research indicates admonishments should never be delivered in a disrespectful, insulting, or threatening manner. The important points are to: (a) clarify the nature of the infraction, (b) emphasize the expectation of compliance in the program, (c) indicate what sanctions await future transgressions, and (d) consider what alternative actions the participant should take in the future. 

Participants may be required to attend more frequent probation appointments, case management sessions, or status hearings in court. 

They may also be required to undergo more frequent drug testing, or more frequent home or community visits by probation officers or other supervision agents. 

Participants may be required to go to a day-reporting center, correctional halfway center, or probation program on a daily basis for several hours each day, often including weekends. Required activities may include drug testing, counseling sessions, cognitive-behavioral “criminal thinking” interventions, and job training.  The purpose is to substantially restrict and structure participants’ free time.

Participants may be required to write letters of apology to the program or persons they have negatively impacted. They are typically asked to describe their non-compliant or inappropriate behavior, analyze what went wrong, and consider how they will react differently in the future. 

Sometimes, participants are required to read the letter in court or during a counseling session. This decision is based on the severity of the infraction, and whether there are any clinical contraindications to having the participant speak in public or publicly disclose the nature of the event.

For participants who are illiterate or have difficulty writing or staying cognitively focused, tape recordings may be used in lieu of written letters. 

Participants may be required to wear an ankle monitoring device, SCRAM® detection device, or other GPS or phone monitoring device.

Essays are typically longer than letters and may require some degree (typically minor) of independent research.  

Staff members generate a list of topics relevant to recovery, and develop a “lending library” of easy-to-digest pamphlets, fact sheets, audio tapes and books on those topics.

Tape recordings may be used in lieu of writing assignments for participants who are illiterate or have difficulty writing.

Community service keeps participants supervised and away from problematic interactions in their neighborhoods. It may also teach useful or adaptive life skills, provide a sense of accomplishment, and offer an opportunity to make restoration to the community.

The severity of the infraction(s) usually determines the number of hours in a day, and the number of days, the participant must report for community service.

Participants may be required to remain in their homes except for specifically authorized activities, such as work, school, or treatment appointments. Compliance with the curfew is typically enforced via random telephone monitoring calls with voice confirmation, anklet monitors, or random home visits by probation officers.

Participants may be required to carefully plan out in advance the activities they expect to engage in during the coming week.  Then, they use an activity log or spreadsheet to monitor their compliance with, and deviations from, the intended schedule.  This information is reported back to staff and the court, and used to identify problematic times and situations in which drug use or other infractions are likely to occur. Contingency plans are then developed to avoid such problematic situations.  

Activity logs are commonly used for participants who are resistant to thinking in advance about their actions, or who engage in impulsive decision-making.

Monetary fines are often set by law for particular offenses, and in some jurisdictions may not be increased for technical violations or other infractions.

In contrast, fees are typically assessed for services provided to participants or for costs incurred by the program. For example, participants who challenge positive drug tests may be required to pay the costs of retesting if the positive test results are confirmed. Similarly, participants might be charged for missed counseling sessions (although perhaps not for attended sessions if they are on a sliding payment scale). 

It is important not to allow fines or fees to build up beyond participants’ realistic ability to pay. Once the ability to pay has reached a ceiling, the use of non-monetary sanctions is preferable.

Research reveals that “flash” jail sanctions of no more than approximately 3 to 5 days can be effective at reducing noncompliant behavior. If, however, jail sanctions are imposed too frequently, for minor or first-time infractions, or for longer intervals of time, they can quickly become ineffective and cost-prohibitive. 

Commonly, the first (or perhaps second) time a jail sanction is imposed, participants are permitted to serve the sanction at a relatively convenient time, such as over a weekend, during consecutive weekends, or after arrangements for childcare or other obligations have been made. The purpose is to avoid interfering with productive and pro-social obligations. After repetitive infractions, however, participants might be taken directly into custody without an opportunity to prepare.

Journaling focuses on more than events or schedules. Participants also monitor and document their thoughts, feelings and attitudes through descriptive writing assignments.  This information is used to identify emotional triggers for drug use and topics for discussion in counseling.  

Journals are often used for participants who are non-insightful, and who tend to act out before they think about their motivations for doing so.

Participants may be escorted by the bailiff or sheriff’s deputy to a holding cell adjacent to the courtroom or elsewhere in the courthouse. The participant may be held in the cell for the remainder of the court session and then brought back for an appearance at the end of the day. The purpose is to give the individual a “taste” of detention without incurring the costs of transportation or having the individual processed into the jail.

The ultimate sanction in Drug Court ensues from an unsuccessful termination. Participants may receive a criminal record of a conviction, with attendant collateral consequences such as ineligibility for certain public benefits. Participants may subsequently be sentenced on the original charge(s), have their probation or parole revoked, or receive a jail or prison disposition. 

Depending on the jurisdiction and the nature of the waivers that are executed to enter the program, participants may, or may not, receive credit for time served in the Drug Court. They also may, or may not, receive an augmented sentence or disposition as a result of their failure to comply with the Drug Court requirements.

Participants may be required to investigate how to accomplish a specific task of daily living. They may need to gather relevant information from staff members, other participants, family members and friends; engage in preparatory actions; develop a plan of action; receive feedback on their plan of action; execute the plan; and take corrective steps, where needed.   

The task is logically linked to areas of difficulty in the participant’s adaptive functioning.

Many Drug Courts require noncompliant participants to sit in the jury box or other designated area of the courtroom to observe the Drug Court proceedings for a day, several days, or a week. This is frequently used to keep participants away from problematic interactions in their neighborhoods. It is also used for participants who tend to be untruthful in their interactions with staff, because they can see how manipulative behaviors appear to observers.

For more serious or repetitive infractions, participants may be required to observe non-drug court proceedings, such as bail hearings or criminal trials. The purpose here is to witness what happens to individuals who do not succeed in Drug Court or who are processed through traditional criminal justice channels. 

The Drug Court may impose additional curfews, area restrictions, association restrictions, or restricted driving privileges. For example, participants may be forbidden from associating with particular individuals, going to particular neighborhoods, being out of their homes after 8:00 pm, or driving their car for purposes other than for work or school. 

Unless curfews are phone-monitored, and unless probation officers, community corrections officers or the police monitor participants’ obedience to other restrictions, they may be expected to have little effect.

Team round-tables are typically used for participants who are in danger of failing out of the Drug Court due to noncompliance with basic expectations, such as failing to show up for counseling sessions or being untruthful. 

The entire Drug Court team meets with the participant to offer feedback and direction from multiple sources in a cohesive and unified way. This is often effective in reducing splitting and triangulation of staff by manipulative individuals.