Problem-Solving Courts

II. The Problem-Solving Court Movement

A. History of Development

Most authorities identify the creation of the first drug court in 1989 in Dade County, Florida, as the start of the problem-solving court movement (Jeffries, 2005). However, others argue that the juvenile court, first created in Chicago in 1899, was the first problem-solving court (McCoy, 2003). Progressive reformers who advocated for the creation of a separate juvenile court believed that separate courts were needed to more effectively address the problem of juvenile crime. Parallels can be drawn between modern problemsolving courts and the juvenile court in that both shifted the focus away from just punishment to attempting to address the individual needs of the offender and that both relied on the services and expertise of social service agencies (Berman & Feinblatt, 2005).

Berman and Feinblatt (2005) have argued, instead, that problem-solving courts came about in a spontaneous manner, without any type of centralized planning or leadership. While they agree that problem-solving courts borrowed from the juvenile court, other disciplines and movements were tapped as well, including alternative dispute resolution, the victims’ movement, therapeutic jurisprudence, and the problem-solving and “broken windows” reforms in policing (Berman & Feinblatt, 2005).

Problem-solving courts have drawn from both the successes and the weaknesses of alternative dispute resolution programs. Interest in mediation and other alternative dispute resolution programs stemmed from a desire to remove low-level crimes and disputes from an overworked court system. Advocates also championed the informal aspects of mediation that generally led to an agreement favored by both parties. One weakness of mediation is that participation is usually voluntary and parties that are not satisfied with an outcome can continue the fight in a different forum. Thus, a key difference between problemsolving courts and mediation or other alternative dispute resolution programs is the reliance on formal court operations and systems to determine outcomes (Berman & Feinblatt, 2005).

Problem-solving justice has incorporated many of the successes and values of both the victims’ rights movement and therapeutic justice. Domestic violence courts in particular focus on the needs of crime victims and involve victim advocacy organizations in decision making. The belief that particular communities can also be “victims” of criminal behavior was a major reason for the creation of community courts. Community courts ask for and receive much input from communities regarding the impact of public order crimes. While not a perfect example of therapeutic jurisprudence, problem-solving courts use the law and courts to address the physical and psychological needs of offenders through court-mandated and -monitored treatment (Berman & Feinblatt, 2005).

Other powerful influences over the creation of problemsolving courts were two recent reforms in policing, namely broken windows and problem-solving policing. Broken windows was a term introduced by J. Q. Wilson and Kelling in an article published in 1982 in Atlantic Monthly. Wilson and Kelling advocated changing the focus of policing from strict law enforcement to more order maintenance. They argued that overall crime levels could be decreased by concentrating on reducing low-level crimes such as vandalism and public intoxication.

Problem-solving policing was introduced by Goldstein in a 1979 article in Crime & Delinquency. Goldstein argued for a more deliberate inquiry into the underlying causes of and solutions to crime using resources within the community. Problem-solving courts also utilize community resources to identify and attempt to solve the underlying causes of crime. Community courts, in particular, also focus on combating low-level public order crimes with mostly community service sentences. Another link between problem-solving courts and recent reforms in policing is the focus on achieving real outcomes rather than simply case processing (Berman & Feinblatt, 2005).

A major impetus for the problem-solving court movement is dissatisfaction with the traditional criminal court. This is particularly true with regards to the handling of low-level criminal offenders. While the public and the media focus more on the sensationalism of violent crimes, the criminal courts are bogged down with mostly misdemeanor crimes that rarely capture the attention of either the public or the media. Judges have expressed concern over the limited options available for the low-level drug user or public order offender (Berman & Feinblatt, 2005). Communities and victims are weary and frustrated over the apparent “revolving door” of justice through which minor criminal offenders are arrested, tried, sentenced to a few days or weeks in jail, and returned to the community to offend again.

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