Applying the Problem-Solving Model outside of Problem-Solving Courts

Article excerpt

In recent years, an array of innovative courts has emerged throughout the country in an effort to address the underlying needs of defendants, victims, and communities. Adult drug courts, which seek to break the cycle of addiction, crime, and repeat incarceration by mandating addicted defendants to treatment, were the first such innovation. The first drug court opened in Dade County, Florida, in 1989; since then, more than 1000 others have opened.

Analogous models have also arisen, including family and juvenile drug courts, domestic violence courts, community courts, and mental health courts. These "problem-solving" courts all attempt to use the authority of the judiciary in new ways and are characterized by a number of unique elements: a problem-solving focus; a team approach to decision making; referrals to treatment and other social services; ongoing judicial monitoring; direct interaction between litigants and judge; community outreach; and a proactive role for the judge inside and outside of the courtroom.

As the first generation of drug courts has been proven effective and received public attention and support,1 several states have begun efforts to institutionalize-or take to scale-problem-solving innovations throughout their court systems. For example, under the leadership of Chief Judge Judith S. Kaye, New York State has implemented adult drug courts in every county and plans to implement an "integrated" criminal/family domestic violence court in all counties by 2007.

A growing number of policy makers have also expressed interest in applying problem-solving court practices outside the specialized court setting. Among those interested are the Conference of Chief Justices and the Conference of State Court Administrators, who advocated,

where appropriate, the broad integration over the next decade of the principles and methods of problem solving courts into the administration of justice to improve court processes and outcomes while preserving the rule of law, and meeting the needs and expectations of litigants, victims, and the community.2

In an effort to aid this process, the California Administrative Office of the Courts, in collaboration with the Center for Court Innovation in New York, conducted research to explore how court systems might integrate problem-solving court practices into conventional court operations. Focus groups were conducted with problem-solving court judges in California and New York, two states at the forefront of testing new problemsolving models.3 The discussions were wide-ranging but focused on which problem-solving court practices are most easily applied in conventional courts, barriers to the more widespread adoption of problem solving, and strategies to overcome these barriers. The participating judges were cautiously optimistic, identifying many opportunities to practice problem solving in mainstream courts, while noting numerous barriers as well.4

Possible practices

Focus group participants identified several practices they felt could be effectively applied in conventional courts, including:

Problem-solving orientation. Participants felt that judges in a variety of criminal and civil court settings could be more proactive-asking more questions, reaching out to service providers, and generally seeking more information about each case. Using that information, they could craft more individualized and at times unconventional court orders.

Interaction with defendants/litigants. Focus group participants considered direct engagement with defendants to be one of the easiest practices to apply in conventional courts, perhaps because it requires no additional resources. Concerns were raised that, in criminal cases, defense attorneys might prevent such interaction for fear that clients might incriminate themselves. But several judges reported that they routinely address defendants directly, with few objections from the defense bar. …