Judicial Notebook

The audience and court officials in Judge Deborah Labora-White’s Miami-Dade drug court frequently break into rounds of applause. Everyone in the courtroom — judge included — watches as an often embarrassed but always appreciative smile covers the face of an “all-star” drug court client, a reformed addict who has turned his or her life around using the court’s rehabilitative assistance. Although Judge Labora-White’s drug court is not the only “problem-solving court” in the United States, it is one of the first specialty or therapeutic courts created to help offenders address the underlying social and mental problems that led to their legal travails.

Since their formal inception in 1989, more than 2,300 problem-solving courts have sprung up throughout the United States, Australia, Canada, Scotland, South Africa and other countries. Most rely on the tenets of therapeutic jurisprudence, a legal philosophy that focuses on the impact of the law on the psychological and emotional well-being of those affected by the legal process (see Winick, Wiener, Castro, Emmert, & Georges, 2010).

Unlike the adversarial approach commonly seen in American courtrooms, problem-solving courts focus on treatment and rehabilitation rather than punishment, trying to solve the underlying issues that brought the individual into the justice system. The judge, mental health providers, public defenders, probation officials and the client work together to treat the client’s chronic and underlying problems. Through mandatory drug testing, frequent appearances before the judge and community supervision, successful clients can have their sentences reduced or dismissed, though the benefit of regaining a healthy and law-abiding lifestyle is equally rewarding.

Although problem-solving courts began with drug courts, the same principles have been expanded to mental health courts, domestic violence courts, family courts and juvenile courts, among others. These courts typically rely on five elements: immediate intervention that focuses on outcomes (such as narcotics, alcohol and group counseling), a nonadversarial judicial process, intensive interactions between the judge and offender, an interdisciplinary team approach, and a set of clearly defined rules and goals (Watson, Hanrahan, Luchins, & Lurigio, 2001). Preliminary research on the efficacy of problem-solving courts shows their clear benefits, with repeat offenses by graduates significantly reduced compared with defendants in traditional courts, helping to remove the “revolving door” criticism often leveled at the United States legal system.

Yet more research is needed to determine how, when and why some clients succeed. Research by Richard Wiener, PhD, MLS, and Bruce Winick, JD, has examined the psychological factors that might predict recidivism rates of problem-solving court defendants. They argue that offenders who perceive the problem-solving court process and judicial decisions as fair may be more successful in the program than offenders who don’t. Clients who anticipate experiencing positive emotions at future court proceedings and clients who are strongly motivated to meet treatment goals may also be more successful. Other psychological factors that may affect successful outcomes include whether offenders attribute their successes and failures to dispositional or situational factors, and whether offenders believe they have some control over the adjudicative process.

Future research should measure legal officials’ perceptions of problem-solving courts, including their perceptions of therapeutic jurisprudence. Also needed is knowledge of judges’ ability to screen eligible problem-solving court clients and to monitor offenders’ treatment progress. By learning more about problem-solving courts, legal officials and psychologists can collaborate to develop a specific plan for starting new problem-solving courts and establish the limitations of their application.

Regardless of their scope, the proliferation of problem-solving courts over the past 20 years shows that they fulfill an important need in the legal system, providing valuable resources for improving offender outcomes. Understanding these factors will inevitably increase the frequency of applause for “all stars” in Judge Labora-White’s drug court, as well as courtrooms throughout the country.

“Judicial Notebook” is a project of APA Div. 9 (Society for the Psychological Study of Social Issues).