Legal Alternatives Are a Success, Yet Face Many Challenges

By Jordan Posner, CFCC Student Fellow 2015-2016
Our journey in the CFCC Student Fellows Program class last week addressed the importance of problem-solving courts that can be holistic approaches for individuals in the judicial system.  They can also serve as a type of intervention before a person becomes involved with the justice system (e.g., Teen Court). Deeply rooted in therapeutic jurisprudence, these alternatives have the ability to rehabilitate, save lives, and address the root causes of a personal or family issue(s).

Five problem-solving courts were examined by my fellow law students.  They include:

  1. Domestic Violence Court – Domestic Violence Courts are specialized courts that were created in the 1990s. These courts allow judges to ensure that cases are properly followed and monitored, while assisting victims of domestic violence and holding offenders accountable. They work with the assistance of justice and social service agencies.
  1. Family Dependency Treatment Court – A Family Dependency Treatment Court is a court devoted to cases of child abuse and/or neglect where the parents have substance abuse problems. The court’s purpose is to protect the safety and welfare of the children, while giving the parents the tools they need to become sober and responsible. The court evaluates the family’s situation to create a plan which will address the needs of both the parents and the children to ensure permanency in the home. These courts offer parents a viable chance to achieve sobriety, provide a safe and nurturing home for their children, and hold their families together.
  1. Drug Court – Addicted individuals may become involved with Drug Court as an alternative to traditional justice system case processing. Drug Courts help individuals with treatment and proper supervision, in an effort to address their substance use issues.
  1. Veterans Treatment Court – Veterans Treatment Courts recognize that veterans have unique challenges, including post-traumatic stress disorders, substance abuse, and mental health concerns. These courts seek to treat veterans suffering from a substance abuse and/or mental health disorder, while helping to ensure public safety.  These specialty courts combine drug treatment and accountability to help the veterans understand their issues and treat any addictions. Veterans Treatment Courts are modeled after Drug Courts, which promote collaboration among the judiciary, community agencies, drug treatment providers, and other community support groups.
  1. Teen/Youth Court – Youth courts are youth driven alternatives to court and school disciplinary proceedings, rather than being handled through the traditional juvenile court and/or school systems. Most Youth Courts require an admission of wrongdoing and function as a sentencing hearing only. Depending on the program model, youth can serve as judges, jurors, prosecutors, defenders, clerks, and bailiffs. Generally, students are referred to Youth Courts for behaviors such as larceny, criminal mischief, vandalism, truancy, drug offenses, and many others.

I never realized the plethora of alternatives that exist to the traditional court model prior to participating in this class. Nonetheless, I am grateful for their existence. In my opinion, problem-solving courts are necessary, and the more that exist, the better we are. Traditional courts have proven over and over that they fall short in therapeutic jurisprudence. The problem-solving courts pick up the slack. Each of these five problem-solving courts has succeeded in its own right in decreasing drug use and crime, while promoting community involvement. Judges and lawyers are increasingly advocating for the use of problem-solving courts, in opposition to sending a person to a traditional court. Furthermore, there is a societal shift trending toward alternative forms of punishment.

The low numbers of problem-solving courts are what alarms me. The positive impact of problem-solving courts is clear; however, I am concerned that we are not replicating these courts throughout the United State in every jurisdiction. As a result, the successes are, in my opinion, falling short. Take the Veterans Courts, for instance. I posed a question in class pertaining to the availability of this option and was told that there are not nearly as many as one would think, especially compared to the number of veterans in densely populated regions. In fact, on October 13th, just two days ago, Maryland opened the doors to a Veterans Court Docket, which will take place in Baltimore City. This marks the first of its kind in the area. It is my hope that Maryland continues to establish these courts in all other counties. This is one type of court that is in high demand.

While I do not know for sure, I would suspect the reason for the low numbers of Veterans Courts and the others listed above is funding.  I want to see these problem-solving courts grow and succeed.   I believe they will, but it is going to take time. These alternatives are necessary and should not be thought about in dollar amounts. Lastly, there is no uniform legislation. Each state has the power to pass legislation to have any number of these courts, but, sadly, many do not. Even more daunting, despite the clear positive impacts, the only logical conclusion I can make for the lack of uniformity in these courts across states, is they are not seen as a priority.

As I mentioned, I remain optimistic. There is so much that these courts have to offer that the traditional justice system model does not. But the issue remains, what can we do to continue to change the minds of the legislators, judges, and everyone else who are nonbelievers that problem- solving courts are necessary and that they work?

3 thoughts on “Legal Alternatives Are a Success, Yet Face Many Challenges

  1. Jordan,

    I agree with your comment, especially about veterans courts. The issue that some of these veterans face coming back from war and having to assimilate causes a great number of problems when trying to legally handle these individuals. These courts allow a rare opportunity for individuals who have first hand experience and knowledge of the specific issues that war veterans face. A court who has knowledge and basis regarding experiences that veterans face, offer them an empathetic ear. This empathy and understanding is crucial for an individual who is most likely suffering from PTSD and other similar afflictions.

    These courts offer ongoing interaction with the individuals and generally shows the veterans that someone in a position of authority cares about them. Partnerships with other courts like the Drug Treatment Courts and other local agencies foster a communal bond that supports and helps heal the veteran, rather than strictly disciplining them. These team-based approaches (not just veteran courts) allow for a unique judicial experience that many individuals don’t receive.

    Do you see there being an issue with judicial leniency when it comes to the individuals in these types of courts?
    Also, do you foresee a trend in where these types of courts will receive more favor in funding?

  2. Jordan-

    I agree that problem solving courts are important and tend to have a more positive impact on participants than the traditional court system. Funding is, as always, a major issue but there are a lot of people who don’t believe that the problem solving courts will work. To change the minds of those nonbelievers, I think it is important that they first understand that the participants are, in a way, choosing to participate in these courts. The court decides who/which cases are appropriate for these courts and the participants themselves want to achieve their goals. The positive atmosphere of the problem solving courts is a better environment for those individuals, as opposed to those more appropriate for the adversarial court system. While the problem solving courts are technically forcing the participants to get treatment, the difference is that they want to do and if they don’t, noncompliance leads to removal from these problem solving courts. The traditional court system is still necessary for those who are not appropriate for the problem solving courts. Also, those involved in certain problem solving courts, such as Veterans Court, are facing distinct issues and have specific needs that have not been and likely cannot be served in the traditional courts. I think it is important that the nonbelievers understand the differences between those involved in each type of court and the more positive impact the problem solving courts can have on the appropriate participants.

  3. Jordan,

    Thanks for highlighting the benefits of problem-solving courts. I agree that the justice system needs to shift much of its funding towards problem-solving courts, as well as, the collaborative services, like social workers, treatment and therapy. I would, however, would like to see more training for the Judges presiding over problem-solving courts. For instance, the court system could dedicate funds for judicial training, including training on juvenile trauma, domestic violence and, the particular traumas impacting the veteran population. Just this morning CFCC observed Drug Court, and it was a pleasure to observe a Judge who understood the population from the addiction perspective. Because the Judge understood the population the defendants responded and engaged with the court in a positive manner. The Judge that we observed understood addiction so well that he recognized a potential “trigger” for the defendant and recommended therapy services to prevent relapse. This Judge was able to review the facts, the defendants personal struggle with addiction, and, yet still, he applied the law in a fair and just manner. I hope to see Maryland grow and develop the problem-solving court system. I also hope to see our court system dedicate funding to the professional development of judges as we learn more about the particular nature of addiction, trauma and domestic violence.

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