May It Please the Court: Problem-Solving Courts Have a Track Record of Lowering Recidivism and Incarceration Costs, but They Still Don't Reach Enough Offenders

By Abramsky, Sasha | The American Prospect, January-February 2011 | Go to article overview

May It Please the Court: Problem-Solving Courts Have a Track Record of Lowering Recidivism and Incarceration Costs, but They Still Don't Reach Enough Offenders


Abramsky, Sasha, The American Prospect


Inside a nondescript building on Polk Street in San Francisco's troubled Tenderloin district, an experimental court is trying to sort out the lives of the accused. Known as the Community Justice Center, the court regularly sees prostitutes, thieves, alcoholics, drug users and dealers, and mentally ill and homeless people primarily for nonviolent offenses. The average defendant has been arrested locally eight times. Instead of sending offenders straight to an overcrowded and expensive jail, presiding Judge Loretta Giorgi tries to connect them with social services that might finally end their downward spiral.

On a recent fall day, Giorgi asked a middle-aged defendant to attend drug-rehab sessions, admonished a young, tattooed man for sleeping through counseling sessions, and ordered another defendant to undergo more frequent urinalysis. The court makes these mandates easy to fulfill: The Polk Street center houses not only the court but also social services, including case-management, housing-assistance, and onsite support groups. The defendants are given highly personalized and structured plans of action designed to distance them from crime, drugs, and alcohol during their time at the court, which can last from months to more than a year. Many are also required to perform community service.

If an offender successfully completes counseling and substance-abuse treatment, Giorgi will often cut the original sentence or probation period, or the district attorney's office will reduce or dismiss the charges. After a graduation ceremony, in which defendants receive a diploma to the applause of the courtroom, some can go on to apply for and emerge from the system with a clean record. Failing the program, however, means that they will likely serve the original sentence behind bars. Since opening its doors in March 2009, the center has seen 2,950 defendants.

"We're taking the hardest-to-serve cases and getting the most success," says Lisa Lightman, director of San Francisco's Collaborative Courts, which oversees 11 nontraditional courts, including the Community Justice Center. In May 2009, her office published a study showing that mentally ill offenders who completed treatment through the city's Behavioral Health Court were 55 percent less likely to be charged with a new violent offense than were their peers who had not been through the program. Overall, BHC clients were 26 percent less likely to be charged with any offense after finishing treatment. Drug-court participants were also far less likely to be charged with new crimes and were arrested fewer times in the three years following their original arrest than were addicts who did not go through the specialized court process. There are cost-saving benefits, as well. The San Francisco court system has calculated that by the third year, the behavioral courts were saving $1 for every 90 cents invested.

"You see folks who have been functioning at a very, very low level for a long time," Giorgi says. "We see victory in even small things. If they're committing crimes once every six months instead of once every month, that's a success. And then there are big things. We see amazing changes in addicts who've turned their lives around."

These nontraditional courts are formally known as problem-solving courts. They have emerged over the past two decades as an alternative to sending habitual offenders to prison or jail yet again. While their institutional origins can be traced back to diversion programs created in the 1960s, their specific carrot-and-stick approach is more recent, as is their embrace of fairly stringent supervision requirements for clients. These measures include regular urinalysis and sometimes even electronic monitoring; the reliance on evidence-based treatment and rehabilitation means problem-solving courts tend to produce better results.

The idea is to provide a combination of punishment and treatment that lowers recidivism and increases participation in and completion of drug- and mental-health treatment programs.

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