Problem-Solving Courts

IV. Types of Problem-Solving Courts

A. Drug Courts

Drug courts are specialized courts designed to handle mostly adult felony drug cases of nonviolent offenders who have substance abuse problems. The first drug courts were not as concerned about treatment as they were about improving the efficiency and speed of processing drug cases. These early courts were also more likely to handle less serious offenders and tended to be more like diversionary programs. Over the last decade, these courts evolved more into drug treatment courts that processed felony drug offenders and worked collaboratively with other agencies and treatment providers to ensure successful offender completion of drug treatment (Olson, Lurigio, & Albertson, 2001).

Specialized drug courts evolved from traditional courts that were unable to adjudicate and process drug offenders effectively. Traditional criminal courts failed to reduce drug offending. Traditional probation departments failed to identify and address the needs of supervised drug offenders. Drug treatment providers failed to effectively treat offenders under the traditional court referral processes (Goldkamp, 2000). Traditional sentencing practices led to the incarceration of hundreds of thousands of drug offenders on a yearly basis by 1998 (Hora, 2002).

Drug courts increased during the 1990s because of financial and political support from the federal government. Janet Reno, the U.S. Attorney General for most of the 1990s, was a key player in the formation of the first drug court in Miami in 1989. She and General Barry McCaffrey, former Director of the Office of National Drug Control Policy, supported specialized drug courts. Financial support from the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act of 1994 provided over $50 million to expand drug courts around the nation (Olson et al., 2001).

B. Domestic Violence Courts

Domestic violence courts are similar to other problem-solving courts in that they have specialized dockets and trained judges, and they engage in collaboration between court officials and other agencies and organizations in the community. However, some people hesitate to classify domestic violence courts as problem-solving courts because there are some key differences between the two. Domestic violence courts generally consider the needs of the victim as more important than the needs of the offender. In contrast to other problem-solving courts, domestic violence courts do not express optimism for the ability to treat successfully domestic violence offenders. Domestic violence courts consider victim safety and offender accountability as more important than offender treatment (Berman, Rempel, & Wolf, 2007). Interestingly, participants in domestic violence courts typically take part in classes for substance abuse, parenting, and mental health counseling. However, these are not viewed as treatment classes; rather, they serve as a monitoring tool for the court (Gavin & Puffett, 2007).

The first recognized domestic violence court was created in Dade County, Florida, in 1992 (Casey & Rottman, 2005). Other jurisdictions over time created dedicated domestic violence courts. While no precise number is given here of how many domestic violence courts exist in the United States, it is estimated that there are “many hundreds” (Gavin & Puffett, 2007).

An example of a domestic violence court is the one that was created in Salt Lake City, Utah, in February 1997. Court officials, along with police detectives, victims’ advocates, and domestic violence and battered women’s shelter counselors, worked in a collaborative effort to handle the 5,000 to 6,000 yearly domestic violence misdemeanor cases in Salt Lake County (Mirchandani, 2005).

C. Mental Health Courts

Mental health courts share characteristics of other problem-solving courts. The first such court appears to have originated in 1997 in Broward County, Florida (Boothroyd, Poythress, McGaha, & Petrila, 2003). These courts consist of specialized dockets of mentally ill offenders (Lushkin, 2001) where a team of court personnel and clinical specialists work collaboratively to address the problems of mostly nonviolent mentally ill offenders through court-ordered and -monitored treatment (Trupin & Richards, 2003).

While most mental health courts accept misdemeanor offenders only, the Brooklyn Mental Health Court, which opened in March 2002, also accepts felony offenders. Originally, this court limited participation to nonviolent felons, but later decided to accept violent felony offenders on a case-by-case basis. The Brooklyn Mental Health Court also limits participation to defendants who suffer from persistent and serious mental illness for which there is a known treatment. Participants in this court must agree to treatment mandates of 12 to 24 months depending upon prior criminal record and seriousness of offense (O’Keefe, 2007).

D. Community Courts

As mentioned above, community courts involve a collaborative effort among court officials, community leaders, and social service providers to combat social problems in a community (Casey & Rottman, 2005). However, rather than focus on one particular crime, community courts deal with a number of mostly misdemeanor public order offenses, such as prostitution, vandalism, minor assault, and criminal trespass (Malkin, 2005). Another defining characteristic is that many community courts tend to be located in residential urban communities rather than the commercial or downtown area of a city (Berman & Fox, 2005).

The first community court was the Midtown Community Court created in Manhattan, New York, in 1993. It handled minor public order offenses or “quality-of-life” crimes such as prostitution, shoplifting, drug possession, and vandalism. Themain purpose of this courtwas to not only punish but also help the offender. Offenders were punished through visible community service or restitution sentences. They received help through on-site social services such as drug treatment, job training, and counseling (Kralstein, 2007).

E. Other Specialty Courts

While drug, domestic violence, mental health, and community courts are the most recognized problem-solving courts, others involving specialized caseloads have been created in the United States and around the world. San Diego created a homeless court in 1989 (Davis, 2003). Some states operate teen or youth courts where juveniles act as the various court officials in cases involving other teens who have committed minor offenses (Acker, Hendrix, Hogan, & Kordzek, 2001). New York City created a gun court to deal with felony gun possession cases. Using a single judge and specially trained prosecutors, city officials hope that the gun court will “provide swift and certain justice to offenders who violate gun laws” (Berman & Feinblatt, 2005, p. 130). South Africa, reported to have the highest incidence of sexual assault in the world, created a sex offender court in 1993 (Walker & Louw, 2003).

Parole reentry courts are another emerging problem-solving court. A number of states have created them with the intent of addressing the problems of parolees returning to the community (Maruna & LeBel, 2003). The Harlem Parole Reentry Court was started in June 2001.This court supervises the returning parolees in Harlem, in NewYork City, who have served prison sentences for nonviolent drug felonies. This reentry court shares similar characteristics with other problem-solving courts. An administrative law judge monitors parolee compliance with parole conditions. The court implements a system of sanctions or rewards for violations or compliance. Court personnel work collaboratively with parole authorities and treatment or community service providers. These community and treatment providers assist in areas of substance abuse treatment, job training, employment, housing assistance, and family counseling (Farole, 2007).

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