Specialty Courts-Problem Solving Courts Serve Few People



What happened to the potential of problem-solving courts?

Is the justice system unwilling to take on risky offenders?


Leonard A. Sipes, Jr.

Thirty-five years of speaking for national and state criminal justice agencies. Former Senior Specialist for Crime Prevention for the Department of Justice’s clearinghouse. Graduate-Johns Hopkins University.


What was thought to be an intervention that would save large numbers of offenders from entering the criminal justice system provides interventions to a small number of offenders.

The Department of Justice’s Bureau of Justice Statistics found 3,052 problem-solving courts in the United States per a recent survey and most admitted fewer than 50 participants during the measurement year. About 3 in 4 courts (72%) admitted fewer than 50 individuals.

Drug courts, mental health courts and related interventions were supposed to process large numbers of offenders and offer alternatives to formal prosecution.

More than half (57%) of problem-solving courts reported that 51% or more of exits were by successful program completion.

Our Analysis

 We love the idea of problem-solving courts (especially veteran courts) where lower level offenders complete programs to keep themselves from formal prosecution. Specialty courts were supposed to save countless thousands of questionable/minor offenders from the eternal disadvantages a criminal record and justice system involvement.

But if 72 percent of problem-solving courts admit fewer than 50 participants a year, the impact is negligible.

According to the FBI, law enforcement made an estimated 11,205,833 arrests in 2014 (latest available data). Of these arrests, 498,666 were for violent crimes (not eligible for many specialty courts) and 1,553,980 were for property crimes.

The highest number of arrests were for drug abuse violations (estimated at 1,561,231 arrests), larceny-theft (estimated at 1,238,190), and driving under the influence (estimated at 1,117,852).

If the average number was 50 participants (we are using 50 as an average for comparison purposes) for the 3,000 courts, that comes to 15,000 people served from 11,000,000 arrests. Even if we doubled that number, the overall impact of specialty courts remains small when compared to total arrests.

We understand that specialty courts are labor-intensive endeavors that require costly programs to be successful, thus from the beginning, we knew their impact would be challenging. Picking the right people who agree to take on the challenges of program involvement can be perplexing. The courts are looking for successes thus high risk or violent offenders are usually excluded.

The research, although recent, was based on 2012 data.

We believe that the most effective method of keeping minor offenders out of the criminal justice system are cops who don’t arrest and prosecutors who don’t file charges.

The Most Effective Diversion Programs

There are no national numbers documenting when when a police officer takes a child home to his parents, or dumps out a baggie of marijuana rather than arrest, or calls a cab for a questionable case of driving under the influence, but we suspect that it happens frequently. I did it when I was a police officer and my fellow officers probably “excused” more defendants than we arrested.

Prosecutors (again, no national data) probably refuse to proceed on a minimum of twenty percent of all cases offered and there are plenty of examples from newspaper reports that the average percentage of non-prosecutions is probably much higher than that. In addition, prosecutors have always offered lower-level defendants agreements to do community service work instead of formal charges.

Bottom Line

Specialty courts are loved by all but their cost impedes use by high numbers of offenders. Cynics have always expressed concern that specialty courts may be more of a public relations gesture than a real effort to divert high numbers of people from the justice system.

Yet the people who work in specialty courts love them and find satisfaction helping people overcome their problems. We fervently hope that specialty courts dramatically expand the number of participants. We are equally hopeful that every non-violent veteran defendant is offered specialty court participation.

But it’s our guess that the real impact as to diverting people from the justice system are cops choosing not to arrest and prosecutors not proceeding with cases.

The Department of Justice Report

Admit Few

Most problem-solving courts admitted fewer than 50 participants in 2012 and did not exceed reported capacity.

In 2012, courts varied in the number of participants admitted. About 3 in 4 courts (72%) admitted fewer than 50 individuals in 2012.

Among domestic violence court, 78% admitted 50 or more individuals and 20% admitted 500 or more in 2012.

Capacity was defined as the maximum number of participants a problem-solving court could manage.

Most problem-solving courts (61%) reported a capacity of 20 to 99 participants.

Most family problem-solving courts (86%) and tribal wellness courts (100%) reported a capacity of fewer than 50 individuals.

Domestic violence courts were larger, with a majority (59%) reporting a capacity of 100 or more.

Among problem-solving courts that reported the number of active participants in 2012, more than half (53%) reported between 10 and 49 active participants.

Domestic violence courts had the most active participants, with more than half (53%) reporting 100 or more.

Most problem-solving courts reported that the number of active participants was within or below their reported capacity.

In 2012, 5% of courts with a capacity of 19 or fewer individuals operated over that capacity, as did 1% of courts with a capacity of 20 to 49 and 4% of courts with a capacity of 50 to 99


Problem-solving courts were created to address the underlying issues that result in criminal behavior and to divert participants away from traditional prosecution, incarceration, and other criminal justice system involvement.

Of the 3,052 U.S. problem-solving courts in 2012, nearly half (44%) were drug courts or mental health courts (11%). More than half of courts (53%) reported that they were created prior to 2005, including youth specialty (65%), drug (64%), hybrid DWI/drug (63%), and domestic violence (56%) courts.

Fifty-five percent of veterans courts reported being established in 2011 or 2012, and 54% of DWI courts reported being established between 2006 and 2010.

The distribution of problem-solving courts varied depending on the type of court and the size of the population it served. In 2012, about a quarter of courts were either in jurisdictions with populations greater than 500,000 or 50,000 or fewer.

More than a third (36%) were located in jurisdictions with populations between 100,000 and 500,000. Large jurisdictions had a high number of veterans, domestic violence, and mental health courts. In comparison, small jurisdictions had a high number of hybrid DWI/drug courts and a disproportionately low number of mental health, domestic violence, and veterans courts.

Admissions to problem-solving courts problem-solving courts also vary by the point at which they intervene in a case. In 2012, more than a third (35%) of problem-solving courts accepted a case at filing or prior to a plea, and nearly two-thirds (64%) accepted a case after a plea was entered.

Participants must meet certain criteria to be accepted into a problem-solving court. Individuals with a history of violent (57%) or sex (65%) offenses were ineligible for most problem-solving courts, with the exception of domestic violence and veterans courts.

Juvenile participants remained in problem-solving court programs for a significantly shorter time than adults. The average time in programs was less than 1 year in about two-thirds of juvenile drug courts (65%) and juvenile mental health courts (70%), compared to about a third of adult drug courts (31%) and nearly half of adult mental health courts (49%).

Participants used individual counseling sessions (89%), substance abuse treatment (87%), or life skills training (72%) while in the program.

In 2012, more than half (57%) of problem-solving courts reported that 51% or more of exits were by successful program completion.

Two-thirds of hybrid DWI/drug courts reported that half or more of exits were by successful program completion.

In comparison, 62% of family problem-solving courts had 50% or fewer exits by successful program completion.

Most (93%) problem-solving courts reported at least one benefit to participants for successful completion of the program in 2012. Reported benefits included case dismissal (61%), a suspended sentence (40%), and having records expunged (22%). Less than half (44%) of all problem-solving courts tracked graduates after successful program completion in 2012, ranging from 11% of domestic violence courts to 59% of DWI courts.

Source: http://www.bjs.gov/

Crime in America at http://crimeinamerica.net

Contact us at crimeinamerica@gmail.com. Media on deadline, use leonardsipes@gmail.com.

My book: “Amazon Hot New Release”- “A Must Have Book,” Success With The Media: Everything You Need To Survive Reporters and Your Organization available at Amazon



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