Problem-Solving Courts

III. Problem-Solving Courts Compared With Traditional Courts

A. Collaboration

Judges and attorneys working in problem-solving courts invite in and are more likely to work with those not traditionally connected with the courtroom work group. Problem-solving judges and attorneys collaborate with social service workers such as treatment providers, victim advocates, or employment services personnel (Wolf, 2007). Officials in drug courts depend on drug treatment providers to provide treatment to their offenders as well as information on the progress of these participants. Court officials in domestic violence courts work closely with victim services providers as well as treatment providers, as they not only try to treat offenders, but also protect victims and provide them other needed services. Similarly, judges and attorneys in mental health courts work closely with service providers to ensure mentally ill offenders receive the treatment they need. Officials in community courts likely share building space with a variety of service providers that assist offenders as well as community members in areas such as employment assistance, medical care, child care, counseling, and education (Berman & Fox, 2005).

Judges in traditional criminal courts usually turn over custody and supervision of offenders to community supervision or probation departments. These judges typically do not monitor supervision of sentenced offenders unless they are brought back to court for revocation proceedings. Judges in problem-solving courts more closely monitor the progress of offenders and thus have more contact and communication with other criminal justice officials such as probation or parole officers (Wolf, 2007).

B. Individualized Justice

Another key characteristic of problem-solving courts is the individualized or tailored approach to justice. Offenders are sent to these courts that have specialized caseloads based on the offense the person is charged with. Drug offenders make up the caseloads of drug courts. One of the main purposes for this specialization is to better ensure that offenders receive the treatment that will help them prevent future offending (Berman & Feinblatt, 2005). Another key purpose of this court specialization is to allow for more judicial monitoring of individual cases (Wolf, 2007).

C. Accountability

More complete judicial monitoring is a key component of problem-solving courts. Where judges in more traditional criminal courts can hand off cases to other criminal justice officials, problem-solving judges retain jurisdiction and monitor offender compliance throughout treatment, community service sentences, or other sanctions (Wolf, 2007). Judges not only monitor offender compliance through reports sent in by supervision or treatment officers, but they also can have one-on-one contact with offenders through additional court appearances (Berman & Feinblatt, 2005). Offenders who violate supervision or treatment orders are quickly brought back before the judge. Judges then have the opportunity to sternly lecture, counsel, or impose additional sanctions on the offender. Judges are then in a better position to ensure that sanctions are carried out or that offenders are following through with court-ordered treatment (Wolf, 2007).

D. Better Information

A key difference between problem-solving courts and traditional criminal courts is that problem-solving courts typically have access to more information so that decision makers can make more informed decisions. Problem-solving judges typically have more complete background information on defendants, victims, and communities impacted by crime (Wolf, 2007). Judges as well as attorneys involved in problem-solving courts try to gain greater access to psychosocial information about defendants who are appearing in court (Berman & Feinblatt, 2005). Problem-solving judges also have more information about offender progress as they monitor defendants’ compliance with treatment orders. Furthermore, because of the specialized caseloads characteristic of problem-solving courts, judges, attorneys, and other professionals working in these courts gain valuable expertise and receive specialized training in specific types of offending (Wolf, 2007).

E. Focus on Outcomes

Problem-solving courts have required more in the way of gathering data and conducting research to assess effectiveness. Not content with simply processing cases, problem-solving courts identify specific outcomes that are desired and then conduct research to test whether those outcomes are achieved (Wolf, 2007). Reduced recidivism is an important outcome that is measured in evaluations of problem-solving courts. Other outcomes measured include impact on victims and communities (Berman & Feinblatt, 2005) and cost-benefit analyses (Wolf, 2007).

F. More Community Involvement

One type of problem-solving court, the community court (described further below), is particularly focused on improving community engagement. For more than symbolic reasons, community courts are located in residential urban communities rather than in downtown, commercial districts. The goal is to bring the court closer to the community it serves. Besides physical closeness, the community court also attempts to bring itself closer to the community through increased communication and collaboration with community leaders and members (Wolf, 2007). Residents can serve on advisory boards that make suggestions to court officials for new programming ideas or to inform them of community concerns or conditions. Community members also serve as volunteers in various programs or services and provide a valuable service in offering feedback in evaluations (Berman & Fox, 2005).

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