Article  |  Courts

An Overview of Problem-Solving Courts and Implications for Practice

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Problem-solving courts (PSCs) serve people with substance use or mental health disorders who have been charged with or convicted of a non-violent crime. PSCs are used either as an alternative to adjudication, allowing participants to avoid criminal conviction upon successful completion, or as an alternative to incarceration, with a suspended or reduced sentence.[1] Traditional criminal courts leave little room for flexibility upon a determination of guilt for a violation of criminal law and then sentencing. Alternatively, with goals of rehabilitation and recidivism reduction, PSCs offer a collaborative, multidisciplinary, problem-solving approach that addresses the underlying issues associated with one’s criminal conduct.[2] PSCs combine non-adversarial proceedings[3] and the provision of services for social and psychological issues to reduce recidivism.[4] Research has shown that PSCs can reduce recidivism, decrease criminal justice costs to taxpayers, increase public safety, and reintegrate offenders back into society. [5]

PSCs vary from jurisdiction to jurisdiction as they differ in focus, eligibility criteria, policies, and intervention points (pre-or post-adjudication).[6] However, all PSCs target special populations with unique needs. Drug, mental health, domestic violence, and veteran’s courts are most common, while other PSCs focus on individuals experiencing homelessness and those arrested for prostitution, gambling, truancy, gun crime or DUI. [7] Restorative justice and community courts also fall under the PSC category. The Illinois Supreme Court has adopted uniform standards to be incorporated into the practices, procedures, and operations of all PSCs across the state.

This article provides a state and national overview of problem-solving courts, components shown to reduce recidivism and increase public safety, and implications for policy and practice.

Stakeholder Teams

PSC teams are responsible for implementing the daily operations of the court. Teams include the judge, a prosecutor, a public defender, probation officers, treatment provider, and the PSC coordinator. The team collaborates to improve client outcomes by alleviating mental health, social, or substance abuse issues by providing treatment, services, and intensive supervision. Clients are monitored by probation officers who offer case management and referrals to services.

The team holds internal, collaborative, non-adversarial “staffings”[8] to discuss individual cases and develop strategies to increase success. Staffings occur weekly and as a participant stabilizes and becomes more compliant, court appearances occur less often. The PSC team is also responsible for developing a case management plan, a clinical treatment plan, and a discharge plan for the monitoring, supervision, and therapeutic interventions of a PSC participant.[9]

Client Eligibility and Participation

Typically, PSCs target individuals deemed high-risk for recidivism and in high need of services based on validated, objective risk-needs assessment tools. A multidisciplinary stakeholders group, also known as the PSC team, establishes PSC eligibility and exclusionary criteria.[10] The criteria are communicated to potential referral sources, including judges, law enforcement, defense attorneys, prosecutors, treatment professionals, and probation officers. In Illinois, acceptance decisions must be based on results of clinical and validated risk assessments administered by trained and/or licensed treatment providers.[11]

Eligible individuals are offered the option of PSC but participation is voluntary. All potential participants must be fit to stand trial and formal entry into the PSC has to be in open court on the record. Potential participants are informed of the program requirements and the consequences of non-compliance while participating and asked to sign a consent form prior to participation.[12]

Incentives are used to encourage positive behavior and recognize accomplishments. Incentives may include include fewer drug tests, less frequent court appearances, and reduced charges or sentences. PSCs use graduated sanctions for non-compliance, which may include more frequent drug testing, additional court appearances, or short periods of incarceration that increase as a participant’s infractions accumulate. When individuals complete program requirements, their court case is dismissed and there is no conviction on their record. In addition, graduation ceremonies are held to celebrate and recognize their efforts.[13]

Effectiveness of Problem-Solving Courts

Eight studies have demonstrated success of PSCs, finding that most PSCs, when implemented correctly, are effective at reducing recidivism.[14] Other outcomes associated with PSCs include improved coordination among criminal justice agencies, enhanced services to victims and offenders of crime, and increased trust in the criminal justice system.[15] Practices that influence PSC success include applying a collaborative approach, providing structure and accountability, offering wraparound services, training team members, and monitoring program performance and outcomes.[16]

Development and Expansion

The first PSC, a drug court, was started in Dade County, Fla., in 1989. At that time, Dade County courts, like other courts across the country, were experiencing growing caseloads, focusing more on processing cases than addressing the underlying issues behind criminal behavior.[17] The court was started in response to judges’ concerns about a lack of options when responding to the complexities of substance use and mental health disorders. [18] An evaluation conducted by the National Institute of Justice found that over an 18-month period, Dade County drug court participants had lower incarceration rates, less frequent re-arrests, and longer times to re-arrest than non-drug court defendants.[19]

In 2000, the Conference of Chief Justices and the Conference of State Court Administrators approved use of the term “problem-solving courts,” and called for “the broad integration over the next decade of the principles and methods employed in problem-solving courts into the administration of justice.”[20]

In 2005, the Community-Based Problem-Solving Criminal Justice Initiative sought to broaden the scope of problem-solving courts by testing the approach with more diverse populations, giving judges more sentencing options, and applying key problem-solving principles. At the same time, the U.S. Bureau of Justice Assistance funded 10 projects meant to expand problem-solving to new populations, new geographic territory, or new agencies within the criminal justice system that could be applied throughout the American justice system. These projects represented diverse jurisdictions and intended to be strategic investments in a wide array of approaches.[21]

Figures 1 and 2 depict the number of the most common types of PSCs across the country and in Illinois.[22]


FIGURE 1

Number of PSCs in the United States by Type, 2015 [23]

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FIGURE 2

Number of PSCs in Illinois by Type [24]

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Despite the great expansion, some PSCs have ceased to operate due to insufficient funding, loss of interest by the judiciary, not enough referrals, reduced political support, or lack of treatment or supervision resources.[25] The National Drug Court Institute reported 62 PSC closures across the country in 2014.

Problem-Solving Courts by Type

Drug court

Considered evidence-based by the National Association of Drug Court Professionals, drug courts are by far the most common type of PSC across the United States. Drug courts assist individuals with substance use disorders and can be specialized for specific populations (adults, juveniles, families, veterans, and DUI offenders). Adult drug courts most often serve participants with substance use disorders relating to alcohol, heroin or other opioids, marijuana, methamphetamine, and cocaine.[26]

A study by the National Institute of Justice (NIJ) found that, drug court participants reported less drug use and were less likely to test positive for drugs than drug offenders who went through a traditional court process. Participants also reported less criminal activity and had fewer arrests than a comparison group.[27] This longitudinal study examined 23 drug courts and six comparison groups in eight states and sampled 1,800 drug court and non-drug court probationers from 29 rural, suburban, and urban jurisdictions.

A study by the National Drug Court Institute which included surveys of 25,049 participants in 53 jurisdictions, found the proportion of clients who successfully complete drug court ranged from 50 to 75 percent—a percentage two-thirds higher than that of standard probation. They also were found to be twice as likely to successfully complete the regimen of treatment when compared to other programs for probationers with substance use disorders.[28]

In 1997, the National Association of Drug Court Professionals (NADCP) convened a group of experts to develop a unified conceptualization of the drug court model making it distinguishable, measureable, and understandable. The convening resulted in 10 key components for effective drug courts,[29] and research has shown that noncompliance with the components reduces the success and cost-effectiveness of drug courts by as much 50 percent.[30]

The 10 key components are:

  1. Drug courts integrate alcohol and other drug treatment services with justice system case processing.
  2. Using a non-adversarial approach, prosecution and defense counsel promote public safety while protecting participants’ due process rights.
  3. Eligible participants are identified early and promptly placed in the drug court program.
  4. Drug courts provide access to a continuum of alcohol, drug and other related treatment and rehabilitation services.
  5. Abstinence is monitored by frequent alcohol and other drug testing.
  6. A coordinated strategy governs drug court responses to participants’ compliance.
  7. Ongoing judicial interaction with each drug court participant is essential.
  8. Monitoring and evaluation measure the achievement of program goals and gauge effectiveness.
  9. Continuing interdisciplinary education promotes effective drug court planning, implementation, and operations.
  10. Forging partnerships among drug courts, public agencies, and community-based organizations generates local support and enhances local support and enhances drug court effectiveness.[31]

The key components guide courts to utilize assessments, case staffings, status hearings, use of rewards and sanctions, therapeutic responses, and treatment.[32]

Mental Health Court

Mental health courts were established to respond to needs of those with mental health conditions in crowded jails and the common co-occurrence of substance use and mental health disorders.[33] The goal is to address the underlying issues that contribute to criminal behavior and reduce the number of people with mental health issues involved in the criminal justice system.[34] These PSCs were established to provide individuals with mental health conditions into community-based services.[35] The Council of State Governments Justice Center outlined 10 essential elements of design and implementation of mental health courts.

These elements include:

  1. Broad-based stakeholders and community representatives for planning and administration.
  2. Target population controlled by public safety and treatment capacity, while considering individual circumstances and availability of alternatives.
  3. Timely participant identification and linkage to services.
  4. Terms of participation promote public safety, are individualized to correspond to risk levels, facilitate defendant’s engagement in treatment, and provide positive legal outcomes for successful completion.
  5. Informed choice by defendant and their legal counsel, while providing procedures for concerns of a defendant’s competency.
  6. Evidence-based, comprehensive and individualized community treatment supports and services.
  7. Confidentiality rights of the defendant upheld in the event that participants return to traditional court processing
  8. Court team comprised of criminal justice and mental health staff and treatment providers maintains ongoing training and court process revision to help participants achieve treatment goals
  9. Monitoring adherence to court requirements through individualized graduated incentives and sanctions, and modifying treatment to promote public safety and recovery.
  10. Long-term sustainability through data collection and assessment of impact of mental health court performance while expanding court support in communities.

The elements focus on collaboration among the criminal justice system, mental health system, and substance abuse treatment system.[36]

Extensive evaluations of mental health courts have shown promising outcomes, both short-term (one year post-graduation) and long-term (two years of more post-graduation), with lower recidivism among mental health court participants during and after participation compared to those with mental health issues in traditional court processes.[37] A study of mental health courts in Santa Barbara County, Calif., using randomized control trials found that of clients in mental health court, 47 percent were convicted of a new crime in the year following treatment, compared to 60 percent for those treated through the traditional, adversarial approach.[38] Additionally, of the mental health court participants who were convicted of a new offense, 51 percent were for violations of probation compared to 65 percent of those on standard probation.[39] Another study found that mental health courts successfully reduced re-arrests for new offenses and violations and provided services to stabilize meal health consumers in the community. Specifically, one year after enrollment, 54 percent of participants had not been newly arrested, had probation violations reduced by 62 percent, and were 3.7 times less likely to reoffend when compared to non-graduates.[40]

Veteran’s Court

A large proportion of military veterans may experience substance use disorders, mental health issues, such as posttraumatic stress disorder or traumatic brain injury, difficulties readjusting to life at home, homelessness, and criminal justice system involvement.[41] Veteran’s courts tend to be hybrids of drug court and mental health court, as they are often dealing with participants suffering from both mental health substance abuse issues.[42] The number of veteran’s courts increased 14-fold from 2009 to 2014.[43]

One component unique to veteran’s courts is the use of mentors who have been in combat and understand the frame of mind after such an experience. Mentors have been found to help veteran participants overcome their issues.[44] Other key components, which are similar those found in other PSCs include:

  1. Integration of alcohol, drug treatment, and mental health services with justice system case processing.
  2. Using a non-adversarial approach when prosecution and defense counsel promote public safety while protecting due process rights of participants.
  3. Early identification of eligible participants who are promptly placed in Veterans Treatment Court program.
  4. Access to a continuum of alcohol, drug, mental health and other related treatment and rehabilitation services.
  5. Abstinence monitored by frequent alcohol and drug testing.
  6. Coordinated strategy governs response to participant’s compliance.
  7. Essential ongoing judicial interaction with each individual.
  8. Monitoring and evaluation measure achievement of program goals and gauge effectiveness.
  9. Continuing interdisciplinary education to promote effective court planning, implementation and operation.
  10. Forging partnerships among treatment court, Veterans Administration, public agencies and community-based organizations generates local support and enhances court effectiveness.

Although veteran’s courts have not been as rigorously evaluated as other types of PSCs, evaluations have been positive. One study found that veteran court participants experienced significant improvement in symptoms of PTSD and depression, substance abuse, overall functioning, emotional health, relationships with others, recovery status, social connectedness, family functioning, and sleep.[45] Another study following participants six and 12 months after veteran’s court completion found 90 percent of participants were arrest-free during participation and after participation experienced significant improvements in symptoms of depression and PTSD and substance use.[46] Researchers also have found recidivism rates of participants are lower than overall state recidivism rates.[47] Further evaluation is needed using more rigorous research designs.

Domestic Violence Court

Emerging in the 1990’s, domestic violence courts are based on the premise that if underlying social and psychological issues are not addressed, families would continue to cycle through the criminal justice system.[48] Domestic violence courts serve victims, as well as offenders.[49] Services for victims may include assistance with orders of protection, protection in waiting areas of courtrooms, and financial and housing assistance. Victims are often provided advocates, who:

  • Accompany victims to court.
  • Help create safety plans.
  • Explain the criminal justice process.
  • Provide referrals for housing and other services.
  • Provide referrals for counseling services.

Services for offenders may include batterer programs, alcohol or substance abuse programs, mental health treatment, and parenting programs.[50] The court can also address related custody, visitation, child support, paternity, and child abuse cases.[51] Courts specializing in domestic violence cases feature a one-family, one-judge model provides judges and attorneys more complete information, enhance victim safety and satisfaction, and process cases more efficiently and effectively.[52]

In 2002, a National Advisory Committee comprised of leading representatives from different disciplines involved in the processing domestic violence cases through the criminal justice system developed guidelines designed to help jurisdictions determine the most appropriate structure and best model to address the needs of their communities. These guidelines are based on extensive experience in creating and operating domestic violence courts.[53]

The guidelines include:

  1. Early access to advocacy and services focused on keeping victims and their child(ren) informed and safe by providing crisis assistance, referrals to long term counseling, short and long term economic assistance, and legal assistance including immigration help.
  2. Coordination of community partners through training and education, institutionalized coordination of procedures and services, and informed decision-making and information sharing.
  3. A victim- and child-friendly court by maintaining protection from defendant through physical presence of security officers escorting the victim and training court officers on security protocols.
  4. Specialized staff and judges trained in relevant laws and dynamics of abuse, allowing the defendant less room for manipulation.
  5. Even-handed treatment in the courtroom, promoting access to counsel for all parties and appropriate judicial demeanor.
  6. Leveraging the role of the judge to coordinate partners, improve procedures, and develop needed programs and components in a system-wide response.
  7. An integrated information system using domestic violence history of the perpetrator provides a judge with the most information possible to make an informed decision, follow up with access to re-arrest information, and access to this information enables the court to keep the victim apprised of violations and relevant case information.
  8. Evaluation and accountability of ongoing data collection is necessary to improve the courts and communities response to domestic violence. Additionally, domestic violence fatality review teams can be valuable in analyzing weaknesses in the system to improve operations.
  9. Ongoing training, evaluation and continuing education in order to stay informed on relevant laws, procedures and services while having a greater sensitivity to dynamics of abuse.
  10. Compliance monitoring by regular reporting to the court from agencies that monitor defendants, like probation and batterers intervention programs increases accountability.
  11. Sentencing models that promote consistency and take into account the context of each individual incident, and court-mandated conditions, as well as sanctions for failure to adhere, as part of a sentence must be imposed in a consistent manner.

One study using randomized control trials found domestic violence courts were more effective in reducing recidivism than referral to batterer intervention programs.[54] Further, research has shown that fast-tracking domestic cases via domestic violence courts improves information sharing, as well as increases victim participation, support, and satisfaction.[55]

Considerations for Implementation and Operation

The following are some considerations when implementing and operating PSCs.

Examine Participation in Problem-Solving Courts

One issue around PSCs is their potential to “net widen” or increase the number of individuals entering the criminal justice system. Some PSCs require defendants to plead guilty before they can enter a program, so individuals may be compelled to do so to access treatment and earn reduced or dismissed charges. While defense attorneys support the idea of providing treatment, many are frustrated that they do not have an opportunity to refute charges.[56] According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, in 2012, 65 percent of all PSCs nationwide accepted cases only after a guilty plea was entered.[57] To decrease the number of guilty pleas, participation could be considered a pre-trial condition, so that upon successful completion the arrest charge is expunged.

Eligibility criteria also may exclude individuals who could benefit from PSCs. In 2012, 56 percent of PSCs did not accept applicants with a history of violent offenses and 65 percent would not accept applicants with a history of sex offenses.[58] Modifying the criteria for eligibility into PSCs to include any individual charged with a less serious probationable violent or sex offense, or any violent or sex offense punishable by up to one year in county jail would expand the number of individuals who could benefit from PSCs.

Continue to Evaluate Problem-Solving Courts

Although drug courts have been rigorously evaluated and found to use evidence-based practices consistently, the same is not true for other types of PSCs. Without randomized control trials or studies using matched samples, it is difficult to truly understand whether courts produce the desired outcomes. This becomes even more important as programs expand to different locations and populations. Extensive evaluation can help build consistency and effectiveness. According to state standards developed by the Administrative Office of the Illinois Courts, all PSCs must establish a formal plan for data collection. Additionally, PSCs must develop a plan for sustainability by identifying resources and developing a budget that can be regularly reviewed and tweaked.[59]

When jurisdictions adopt an evidence-based program (EBP), like drug courts, there is still a need to examine implementation and fidelity to the program model.[60] EBPs should be continually monitored and evaluated for efficacy.[61]

Leverage Existing Resources and Apply Best Practices

Many resources for PSCs have been developed over the decades of this work. The National Center for State Courts developed a toolkit that offers steps for PSC implementation. [62] The Council of State Governments published several documents to inform the design and implementation of mental health courts, including a comprehensive online curriculum. [63] In addition, jurisdictions who have fidelity to the established key components of the problem-solving court model are more successful at reducing recidivism and being cost effective.[64]

State PSC standards also have been adopted in Illinois. In 2015, the Administrative Office of Illinois Courts and the Special Supreme Court Advisory Committee for Justice and Mental Health Planning developed standards and a certification process for all PSCs in Illinois. The state standards are meant to ensure the consistent and uniform use of evidence-based practices that are correlated with positive, cost-effective outcomes and enhanced public safety. The standards set minimum requirements for planning, establishment, operation, certification, and evaluation for all Illinois PSCs.[65] Illinois PSCs must adopt the standards and be certified every three years.[66]

Laurel Hill, Research Intern, Center for Justice Research and Evaluation, Illinois Criminal Justice Information Authority, contributed to this article.


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  6. Pre-adjudication allows an individual to participate in a PSC before plea, conviction, or disposition, and requires successful completion of the PSC. Post-adjudication allows an individual who has admitted guilt or has been found guilty to participate PSC as part of the individual’s sentence or disposition. ↩︎
  7. National Center for State Courts. (nd). Problem-solving courts. Williamsburg, VA. Retrieved from http://www.ncsc.org/Topics/Alternative-Dockets/Problem-Solving-Courts/Home.aspx. ↩︎
  8. Collaborative, non-adversarial discussions among all PSC members that may include, but are not limited to, the topics of a participant’s compliance with PSC program requirements: the utilization of rewards, sanctions, or therapeutic adjustments; phase promotion; graduation and termination. Other topics may include a person’s eligibility for participation in the PSC, program data and outcomes, program improvements, research, and cross-training. ↩︎
  9. Administrative Office of Illinois Courts. (2015). Problem-solving court standards. Springfield, IL: Author. Retrieved from http://www.illinoiscourts.gov/Probation/Problem-Solving_Courts/P-SC_Standards_2015.pdf. ↩︎
  10. A group comprised of stakeholder, including, but not limited to, representatives from the judiciary, the prosecutor’s office, the public defender’s office, licensed treatment providers, probation/court services, law enforcement agencies, and local government, utilizing a comprehensive and collaborative process in developing or enhancing a PSC program. ↩︎
  11. Administrative Office of Illinois Courts. (2015). Problem-solving court standards. Springfield, IL: Author. Retrieved from http://www.illinoiscourts.gov/Probation/Problem-Solving_Courts/P-SC_Standards_2015.pdf. ↩︎
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  38. Note: Experimental designs, which involve random assignment to either the treatment or control groups, are the gold standard for evaluations that aim to determine whether the program resulted in the intended outcomes. Often referred to as randomized control trials (RCT), evaluations using this design have strong internal validity when properly executed. ↩︎
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This project was supported by Award No. 13-DJ-BX-0012 awarded by the U.S. Department of Justice, Bureau of Justice Assistance The opinions, findings, and conclusions or recommendations expressed in this publication are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Department of Justice or the Illinois Criminal Justice Information Authority.

Erica Hughes

Erica Hughes was an Authority research analyst. She received a Bachelor of Science in Human Resources and Family Studies at the University of Illinois Champaign-Urbana and a Master of Arts in Criminal Justice at University of Illinois Chicago. Her areas of interest include juvenile justice, victims, victim services, and college campus crime. Ms. Hughes was with the Authority since 1998.

Jessica Reichert

Jessica Reichert manages ICJIA’s Center for Justice Research and Evaluation. Her research focus includes violence prevention, corrections and reentry, women inmates, and human trafficking. Her work received the Justice Research and Statistics Association’s Phillip Hoke award in 2011 for outstanding effort in applying empirical analysis to criminal justice policymaking. She has conducted numerous national and state presentations on criminal and juvenile justice issues. Prior to joining ICJIA, Jessica worked at the Office of the Illinois Attorney General and in 2005 received the Distinguished Service Award for her work on behalf of citizens of Illinois. She earned her bachelor’s degree in criminal justice from Bradley University and master’s degree in criminal justice from University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. Jessica is also a part-time Adjunct Instructor at Loyola University Chicago.