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US judges – more innovative than English judges but still lacking organisational power

Penelope Gibbs
04 Jun 2014

It’s depressing but also uplifting to hear about the US system of criminal justice.  I’m here on a Winston Churchill Memorial Trust scholarship, finding out about the influence of US judges on the wider criminal justice system.  This morning I met Professor Caroline Cooper, a mine of information on US judges and particularly drug courts.  The story of their inception was inspiring.  Gerald Wetherington, a judge in the Miami area, was fed up with having to send drug addicts to prison, where they would get no treatment and be likely to reoffend on release.  In the late 80s Gerald, the Chief Judge of Dade County,  decided to do something about it and gave his equally fed up Deputy, Herbert Klein, a year off sitting (!) to work out how the court system could better deal with drug addicted criminals.  Herbert travelled the US, and was most impressed by the outpatient service at the Lincoln hospital in the Bronx, where addicts went on a 12 month programme involving acupuncture.  He returned to Dade County and the two judges conspired to set up the first dedicated drugs court.  This referred offenders to treatment based on the Bronx model – a public health solution to a justice problem.  This and other drugs court were set up because of judicial enthusiasm.  The contrast with England and Wales is telling.  Nearly all specialist and community courts have been set up by civil servants, with judges going along with the will of the executive.  Judge David Fletcher led the Liverpool Community Court with huge enthusiasm and ability.  But the idea came from and was implemented from Whitehall. There is so much not to learn from the US, but we should emulate US judicial innovation.

But some things are similar, and not ideal for driving through change…judges in US have very little power over other judges, even if they are nominally their superior.