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Specialized Courts: A Promising Alternative

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The Value of Specialized Courts

The roots of specialized courts lie with judges and prosecutors who felt that a therapeutic approach to addressing criminal offending was needed in order to reduce reoffending and increase public safety. Therefore, the usefulness of specialized courts is that they attempt to solve problems. This can include problems for the defendant or the community. Judges, criminal justice practitioners, and social service agents collaborate and closely monitor cases in order to bring about favorable results.

Guiding Principles

Specialized courts are usually based on and organized around one of three guiding principles:

  1. The problem-solving orientation attempts to solve the problem by focusing on the underlying issues. This approach often relies on rehabilitation to accomplish its task.
  2. The second guiding principle is collaboration. It calls upon both courtroom players and others to work together to solve the issue at hand. Those involved can include court administrators, judges, attorneys, supervision agencies, service providers, and community members.
  3. The third approach is accountability. It calls for compliance by all involved—defendants, courtroom players, and social service agents—by tracking performance and results. It sees its responsibility lying with both the court system and the community.

Therefore, the above principles outline the collaborative and intense nature of specialized courts, thus highlighting their usefulness as problem solvers.

Goals and Objectives

Another way to understand the usefulness of specialized courts is to be familiar with their goals and objectives. These include the following:

  • coordination of all courthouse staff
  • linking participants with appropriate services
  • using a continuum of treatment and services
  • timely monitoring of treatment plans
  • direct judicial interaction
  • explanation of responsibilities and decisions
  • full engagement by all involved
  • retention of participants
  • focusing on behavioral changes even beyond case completion
  • understanding of underlying causes
  • being able to reach a sizeable population
  • collaboration of policies and decisions
  • service providers participate in meetings
  • consideration of the community
  • offering practical incentives for participants to be involved with and complete the program
  • explaining penalties
  • monitoring outcomes

Benefits to Both Courts and Offenders

Specialized courts can also be useful in freeing up the resources of the lower courts where many of the cases would normally be tried. Since many of the lower courts suffer from problems of inadequate financing, inadequate facilities, lax procedures, and unbalanced caseloads, the specialized courts provide a sound alternative.

A further value to specialized courts can be witnessed by those that are served. For example, the deinstitutionalizing of the mentally ill has displaced many people from the mental health system into the criminal justice system. There are now more people with mental illnesses in jails and prisons than in all the states’ psychiatric hospitals combined. By the use of mental health courts, this incarcerated population could be greatly reduced. In addition, the benefits to the minor offender would be substantial with health and social services provided.

Why Specialized Courts Are a Good Idea

Specialized courts are a good idea since they attempt to solve problems rather than simply run defendants through the system. These problems can be created by the criminal justice system such as large caseloads, growing jail and prison populations, and decreased public confidence. Or the problems can take on a more individualized focus, such as reducing an individual’s dependency on drugs or alcohol.

A Focus on Outcomes

By focusing on outcomes, specialized courts attempt to solve the issues in a participant’s life that precipitated court involvement in the first place. By addressing these issues, the hope is that the participant will gain control and thus lessen the likelihood that further criminal justice involvement will be necessary. Through collaborative approaches to decision-making, individualized justice for each participant, defendant accountability, community engagement, greater information gathering and dissemination, staff training, and better databases, recidivism can be lowered. This can lead to improved safety for the victims and stronger communities.

An Emphasis on Goals

Another aspect of specialized courts that could be better than traditional courts is the emphasis on goals. According to some stakeholders, in traditional courts, goals were viewed largely in administrative terms, with the emphasis being on court volume and case flow. In specialized or problem-solving courts, the goals may be more related to achieving positive individual and community outcomes.

Therefore, a traditional court will focus on the average time spent from arraignment to disposition, whereas the alternative will focus on how long a defendant will remain arrest- and drug-free. These goals again contribute to a decrease in criminal activity, which lessens the dependence on the criminal justice system.

Protection and Support for Offenders

Specialized courts also attempt to protect the less serious offenders from the negative effects of incarceration, while at the same time providing services and rehabilitative programs that help integrate the offender into the community as a law-abiding citizen.

Yet another way that specialized courts are a good idea is that, in some cases, if an offender remains crime-free for a specified amount of time, they can get their offense reduced or dismissed by the court. This greatly reduces the stigma associated with having a criminal offense on record, which in turn can make it easier to integrate into society.

Additionally, specialized courts can be beneficial to women offenders, since many women offenders are also likely to be mothers of dependent children. Specialized courts could ensure that the mother remains in society, allowing her to be available to her children. This approach could also offer job search assistance and continued education.

Types of Problem-Solving Courts: My Recommendations

The following are a few types of specialized courts that could make an impact on the justice system.

Drug Court

One recommended specialized court is drug court. These courts provide an alternative to a traditional court and deal only with referrals from defense attorneys, probation officers, or prosecutors. A candidate for the court must be a nonviolent offender with substance abuse problems. If the offender is eligible for the court, then he must agree to waive his rights to a juried trial and to enter a treatment center for a specified period of time with random drug testing taking place. The participants are supervised by a probation officer.

Drug courts are recommended because they have proven successful. One decade-long study found that drug courts reduced recidivism by between 17% and 26%. The number of drug courts is on the rise. From the first court in Florida in 1989, the number of drug courts rose to more than 3,000, with plans for more.

Mental Health Court

Another recommended specialized court would be the mental health court. People with mental illnesses often display deviant, though not criminal, behavior. If a mentally ill person poses no threat to the community, his situation may be best dealt with through mental health and social services. If imprisoned, mentally ill people are more likely to harm themselves and be victimized by other inmates.

The mental health court's success is dependent on the availability of community services for the homeless, adequate family or community support, and medication stability. One evaluation of a mental health court in Tennessee found that 85 percent of their clients completed the required conditions of the court with a six percent recidivism rate. If adequate resources and support are available, mental health courts provide a favorable option for people who need to be helped more than punished.

Domestic Violence Court

A third specialized court that I recommend would be domestic violence court. This court focuses on victim safety and defendant accountability. It differs from other problem-solving courts since the goal of defendant rehabilitation is not the top priority. These courts are recommended because of the emphasis of protecting the victim. Since the victims are often economically reliant on the offender and often have shared children, there are unique concerns for these courts. Some of the principles to ensure victim protection include access to victim advocates, quick links to social services, the creation of safe places, the prompt scheduling of cases, and keeping the victim informed.

The other key focus, defendant accountability, can be successfully realized by following four principles. These principles are:

  1. Build a strong relationship between the court and the service providers.
  2. Hold batterers programs accountable.
  3. Think creatively to engage as many tools and resources as possible that may help.
  4. Use technology to enhance access to information.

Community Court

A final recommended specialized court is community court. Community courts deal with quality of life crime in a neighborhood, particularly crimes of prostitution, vandalism, and low-level drug offenses. Offenders often are sentenced to community service while the court attempts to link them with social service agencies that assist with their problems. Community courts are recommended because of their emphasis on creative partnerships and problem-solving. Community courts are proactive and seek aggressive approaches to greater public safety.

Six principles are identified as providing a successful community court. These principles were derived after studying the Midtown Community Court in New York City, the best-known community court in the nation.

  1. The first principle is to restore the community to prevent neighborhood decay and to promote communal order.
  2. The second principle is to make justice visible by making community service work very public.
  3. The third principle is to link the court to other criminal justice agencies.
  4. The fourth principle is to help offenders deal with problems that lead to crime.
  5. The fifth principle is to provide better information.
  6. The sixth principle is to design the courthouse to be a physical expression of its fundamental respect for the legal process and its participants.

By following these principles, Midtown Community Court has a 70 percent completion of community service without violations.

Benefits to the Criminal Justice System

Using specialized courts can result in many benefits for the criminal justice system. According to the National Institute of Justice, the two biggest incentives for instituting a specialized court are case management and therapeutic jurisprudence. The case management aspect allows courts to speed up case processing, reduce caseload, reduce time to disposition, and increase trial capacity. The second incentive, therapeutic jurisprudence, can reduce criminal offending by addressing addiction and other underlying issues through therapeutic and interdisciplinary approaches without jeopardizing public safety and due process.

Another benefit of offering specialized courts would be that judges could be assigned to courts that best suit their unique talents and/or expertise. This would allow judges most familiar with the specific problem to hear the case. This has the potential to result in expedited discovery, identification of unresolved issues, a true assessment of the strengths and weaknesses of a case, fair and consistent outcomes, and quicker resolutions.

Specialized courts, by their very nature, offer significant cost savings and crime reduction. These courts attempt to stop, or at least slow, the revolving door of justice that is so often present in traditional courtroom settings. Participants are spared from incarceration, thus not contributing to the growth of that population. Furthermore, since defendants are receiving treatment to address their individual needs, they stand a better chance at success and remaining crime free. Also, financial costs can be realized. For example, the cost of obtaining drug court treatment for substance abuse was $5,928 per offender compared to $7,369 for traditional processing and housing of one drug offender for one year.

Specialized courts can also be beneficial due to the fact that they attempt to promote a positive change in the participant. These positive changes can be desistence of further criminal activity, sobriety, or even a lessening of the types and degree of criminal activities. For example, if a participant was originally arrested on a first-degree burglary charge and they have a subsequent arrest on a lesser offense such as disorderly conduct, then this is considered a success. Positive changes in participants should result in decreased criminal activity.

Additionally, specialized courts help participants with such things as educational achievement, job placement, stability, consistent family relationships, good healthcare, and stable housing. All of these aspects have been shown to lower recidivism rates.

Impact on the Defendant

With specialized courts focusing on problem-solving, the effects on the defendants are generally positive. Instead of possible incarceration, the offender actually gets an opportunity to change for the better. By partnering with social service organizations, treatment centers, and educational and employment agencies, the offender can make preparations and changes that would lead to a more successful life. Specialized courts can provide an intervention creating an opportunity and a choice for a better quality of life.

  • In the case of drug courts, participants who graduated from the program had only a nine percent recidivism rate. Those who did not complete the program had a recidivism rate of 41 percent.
  • Mental health courts have shown only a six percent recidivism rate of the 85 percent who completed the requirements of the program.
  • With domestic violence courts, offenders who were compliant with the court-mandated treatment programs were at decreased risk of future non-compliance with court orders.
  • The effects felt by offenders in community courts were also positive. A study that interviewed offenders found that 96 percent thought community court was a good idea, 73 percent thought their sentence was fair, 83 percent thought the court was helping their neighborhood and 61 percent thought all people were treated fairly.

Impact on the Victim

Many of the victims in specialized courts could be considered the offenders, themselves, but one may acknowledge that even victimless crimes, such as drug use and prostitution, are detrimental to the offender and to society. Therefore, in the case of these victimless crimes, the influence on the defendant and the victim would be one and the same.

Of the specialized courts, the domestic violence courts would be the ones with the most victims. Unlike other specialized courts, domestic violence courts all deal with some degree of assault. Since one of the guiding principles of domestic violence court is victim safety, the impact on the victims in these cases should be one of feeling more protected. The courts strive to provide advocates to the victims who explain court procedures and provide access to counseling, job training, immigration services, childcare services, and programs to promote self-sufficiency. Another safety measure for domestic violence victims who are served by domestic violence courts is the prompt scheduling of cases. This prompt scheduling assures the victim of receiving an order of protection quickly. Another principle to promote victim safety in domestic violence courts is the provision of areas of security and comfort within the courthouse, itself.

Another aspect of domestic violence courts is the accountability requirements of the defendant. With strong accountability requirements in place, victims are further protected. The strong relationship between the courts and batterers’ programs provides a quick response when the defendant is not compliant, allowing the court to act accordingly.

In community courts, the victim is oftentimes the community since the focus is on quality-of-life crimes that erode a neighborhood’s morale. Since the court is centered on community members seeking input on how offenses are handled, the members have a sense of empowerment. The offenders are usually put to work in the community to serve their sentence and the visibility of the work should provide a sense of justification for the neighborhood members.


This content reflects the personal opinions of the author. It is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and should not be substituted for impartial fact or advice in legal, political, or personal matters.