Problem Solving Courts and Other Court Innovation
[See also Therapeutic Jurisprudence]
“…What we are doing is a statement of our belief in the redemption of human beings. It is a pronouncement from those in authority to some of our least powerful and most ignored citizens that we care about you and want to reach out and help you: your lives and well- being are important to us. The truth of the matter is that this may be the first time in the lives of many of these people that someone is actually listening to them - hearing what they are saying and telling them that they care about them and what happens to them is important. You know, there is a mathematical equation that for every action there is an opposite and equal reaction. I believe this is also true in human affairs. We tell them we care about them and they begin to feel worthwhile. Some pretty important people (judges, lawyers, and others in authority) are telling them we don't want them to fail- they begin to believe they can transcend. ….”*
* Judge Herbert Klein, Senior Judge, Circuit Court for Miami-Dade County, credited for creating the drug court concept. Keynote Speech, “The Power of Connection: Fuel for Drug Courts”. 1996 Florida Drug Court Conference.
In our complex society, courts are increasingly being asked to address social problems that are not compatible with the traditional system of adversarial justice and punishment. Recurring problems - such as drugs, homelessness, domestic violence, child neglect and abuse, mental illness, driving while intoxicated - come before courts every day. Veterans returning from war zones return traumatized and often can't fit into society. Problem-solving courts attempt to address the root causes of crime by addressing the recurring problems which lead to the criminal offense.
In 1989, the first drug court was started in Miami, Florida and since then, thousands of problem-solving courts have sprung up across the United States and around the world. Problem-solving courts focus on treatment of the underlying issue rather than incarceration. For example, if someone writes bad checks to pay for drugs and is arrested, the drug court approach would be to create a structure of support to get the defendant off drugs. The defendant would likely be regularly drug-tested, required to attend a program such as Narcotics Anonymous, obtain housing and employment, etc. The support structure might include drug treatment, social services, and a whole team of resources. The defendant must comply with the case plan set out for him or her, often over a period of up to three years, or the case reverts to the punishment system.
Judges in problem-solving courts generally take a therapeutic jurisprudence approach whereby they see each defendant as a human being and recognize the role of the court as having opportunity for impacting lasting change. Many such judges become parental figures, meting out advice, enforcing consequences and cheering for success.
Proponents of problem-solving courts argue that there is a significant cost savings. Providing the support for rehabilitation increases the probability that the defendant will become a productive, tax-paying citizen. Opponents of problem-solving courts generally argue that they are soft on crime.
Mental health courts
The problem-solving approach is particularly poignant in the case of mentally ill defendants who may just need the proper medical care to live normal and productive lives. Studies have shown that a large percentage of incarcerated individuals have issues with mental illness.
Shannon Murphy in The Flint Journal noted that, "Statewide, it costs more than $130 a day to house someone with a mental health illness in a state prison, according to Michigan budget information." and quoted a local official as saying, "There are so many in the jail that when they are on their medications can be out in the community as productive members of society." 
Mental health courts versus incarceration
The Flint Journal article on mental health courts went on to note:
* To house someone with a mental illness in a jail, it can cost about $125 per day.
* It costs about $33 per day to send someone through Mental Health Court.
* It can cost about $130 a day to house someone in a state prison who has a mental illness.
* A day in a psychiatric hospital can cost between $500 to $1,000.
* On average, it costs about $5,500 annually per adult for treatment of a mental illness.
* Nationally about 56 percent of state prisoners and 64 percent of jail inmates had a mental health problem.
Excellent resource for more information: National Association of Drug Court Professionals: www.nadcp.org
Additional Resources from The Center for Court Innovation: http://www.courtinnovation.org/
New York Chief Justice Judith Kaye at Tenth Anniversary of Center for Court Innovation
A New Court in California: A podcast interview with Judge Wendy Lindley, who offers a preview of the Orange County Community Justice Center. http://www.courtinnovation.org/Podcasts/wendy_lindley.mp3
Principles of Problem-Solving Justice: An examination of the six principles that animate problem-solving justice. The principles are based on the Center for Court Innovation’s experience developing problem-solving initiatives, an analysis of problem-solving projects from across the country, and feedback from leading practitioners. http://www.courtinnovation.org/_uploads/documents/Principles.pdf
History of Problem-Solving Courts
In California, they're known as Collaborative Justice:
Resources from other sources:
Problem-Solving Courts - Resource Guide
Conference of Chief Justices and State Court Administrators - in support of problem-solving courts
Problem-Solving Courts: Justice for the 21st Century?. Edited by Paul Higgins and Mitchell Mackinem. Praeger, 2009.
Historical timeline of problem-solving courts: