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Bitten by the specialist court bug?

Penelope Gibbs
21 Jun 2014

I think I’ve been bitten by the specialist court bug and need to pinch myself to remember how different are some of the fundamentals of criminal justice in USA.  For a start most of the crimes dealt with by the lowest (and specialist) courts in the US would not be dealt with in court at all in England and Wales.  Unlawful driving away of a car and theft are considered so serious that they are dealt with by the higher courts.  A second degree (unpremeditated) murder attracts a minimum sentence of 32 years in prison.  And offenders here pay for their own sentence – they have to pay probation costs if they are fortunate enough to get a community sentence.

Nevertheless I do think the speciality courts are breaking the mould of court justice through changing the power dynamic and the atmosphere of the court.  I observed two sobriety courts this week in different courthouses, one focused almost entirely on drunk drivers, the other more broadly on addicted offenders. The courts supervise and review the progress of those under-going intensive rehabilitation programmes. All such courts base treatment on the 12 step programme which starts with abstinence (from drink and/or drugs) and provides constant volunteer and professional support to help the addict stay sober.   The pre-meeting of the second sobriety court was a superb example of team work.  Attending were all the professionals involved in supporting the offenders, from police to mental health practitioners, from probation officer, to defence, prosecution, courts administration and the judge himself.   The progress of each case was discussed with great warmth, patience and understanding.  The team agreed next steps in each case, so the court process the next day would be as supportive and free of conflict as possible – other than occasionally from a client utterly fed up with the strictness of the programme.  The judge in the pre-meeting was the chair of the meeting, and the ultimate decision-maker.  But he was not interested in imposing his will because had the highest respect for the team, their expertise and their greater knowledge of the clients themselves – whether their relapses were just moments of weakness, or signs that they could not cope with the programme.  A mental health practitioner observed that more and more of her clients had eating disorders.  She asked the court administrator whether she could have the money to start a new therapy group for this.  The court administrator didn’t say no, the programme is set in stone, and the resources finite.  She listened carefully and promised to try to find the money.  That conversation meant everyone was aware of a growing need amongst the clients.  The court was not obliged to meed that need.  But in treating their client group holistically, they were keen to support them as well as possible.  The judge listened to this exchange and will undoubtedly follow the progress of the eating disorders group, and offer to help navigate the bureaucracy if needed.

The actual court the next day was a fitting culmination of that in-depth team preparation.  Client after client stood up to be congratulated for their progress, or encouraged to get a bit more organised or to “share” more at therapy meetings.  All those in the A team (compliant) had their names put into a draw and the winner got a $25 voucher.  And no-one swore or even sulked at the judge. He said he would miss one client, because she laughed at all his jokes. Another client asked the judge whether he liked the sketch he had drawn of him.  The atmosphere was warm and friendly but the judge still wore his robe, sat on high and commanded the respect of the court.  The threat of imprisonment for non-compliance was still there.