Collins on Problem-Solving Courts

Erin Collins (Richmond) has posted a new article, The Problem of Problem-Solving Courts, which looks at the origins of problem-solving courts and questions whether they are really meeting their stated goals. (Problem-solving courts are criminal courts designed to address the unique needs of a specific group of offenders, like drug courts or veterans courts.)

Her conclusion (from the abstract) is quite interesting:

This Article … contends [that] problem-solving courts do effectively address a problem — it is just not the one we think. It argues that these courts revive a sense of purpose and authority for judges in an era marked by diminishing judicial power. Moreover, it demonstrates that the courts have developed and proliferated relatively free from objective oversight. Together, these new insights help explain why the problem-solving court model endures. They also reveal a new problem with the model itself — its entrenchment creates resistance to alternatives that might truly reform the system.

It’s an intriguing article that will cause me to think more carefully about the proliferation of problem-solving courts across the country.

Indiana’s problem-solving courts and the development of the courtroom workgroup

Those interested in the operations of problem-solving courts might want to skim through various rule changes proposed by the Indiana Problem Solving Courts Committee.  Among the most notable changes, any judge appointed to a problem-solving court bench would be required to participate in an approved orientation program within a year of appointment.  The new rules also clarify the importance of the entire “problem-solving court team” — a group that may include the judge, case managers, attorneys, probation or parole officers, and representatives of addiction treatment, child services, or Veteran’s Administration groups.

Such teams are an expansion of what Herbert Jacob identified as “courtroom workgroups” in the 1980’s.  Jacob and his colleagues observed that in the crucible of the courtroom (especially the criminal courtroom), the D.A., defense counsel, and judge had much more in common with each other than might be anticipated.  They worked together to process hundreds of criminal cases, and developed their own courtroom culture that was not known or understood to those who did not frequent the courtroom.  In particular, criminal defense lawyers found themselves in two worlds — as advocates for their clients, as as friends and colleagues of the judge and prosecutor.  The interests of the specific defendants became almost secondary to the “work” that needed to be done in processing cases.  (Coincidentally, the courtroom workgroup was often clearly, if absurdly, illustrated by the contemporaneous sitcom Night Court.)

Indiana’s problem solving courts appear to embrace the courtroom workgroup in a  healthy way, allowing a team of advocates and decisionmakers to help defendants reach productive resolutions.  Any Indiana resident or attorney is invited to comment on the proposed changes.


Florida’s problem-solving courts see 45% surge in participation

Florida’s Fourth Judicial Circuit has established a series of problem-solving courts, which are designed specifically to get at the root of nonviolent criminal activity, and get the offenders the help they need to become productive citizens. State court systems around the country have begun to adopt problem-solving courts, to critical acclaim.

It appears that Florida’s work in paying off, at least with respect to participation. Participation in its drug courts, mental health courts, and veterans courts is collectively up more than 45% over this time last year.  This is encouraging precisely because problem-solving courts are not easy for the participants: they must make a financial investment in the program, and must complete all the requirements of participation, which can last a year or more.

Problem-solving courts are not appropriate for every crime or every criminal, but their success suggests that court systems can help their communities by thinking flexibly about their roles and responsibilities outside of traditional adjudication.

A fine example of courts and community groups working together

The Denver Post has a great story on the successes of a problem-solving court in Eagle, Colorado. The court was created seven years ago by a state judge, working in tandem with the local Masonic Lodge, to provide a new approach to individuals facing drug and alcohol addiction. Rather than jail time, first-time drug and alcohol offenders are given a chance to work toward sobriety. The expectations are high, but offenders who choose that route are supported throughout the program, and the Masons provide scholarships to some program graduates to facilitate vocational and professional training. While not everyone makes it through the program, those who do are better off in immeasurable ways.

State courts across the country have recognized over the last two decades that not all legal infractions are best resolved through traditional criminal justice. This is a nod to reality, not leniency — and it is a nice example of the courts reinventing themselves (in part) to best serve the needs of their constituencies.