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What problems can problem-solving courts solve?

Penelope Gibbs
26 May 2016

The government is making plans to re-launch problem-solving courts.  These are an American invention, with which we experimented under New Labour.  Our problem-solving courts were introduced top down, in quite an expensive way.  I don’t think the Whitehall civil servants quite understood how they had been set up in the States – incrementally, locally, by judges enthused by other judges.  This time round the government is resolved to do it a different, more sustainable way.  Having spent a month in problem-solving courts in the USA, I am a huge fan of them – particularly their holistic, humane treatment of offenders. But there are some considerable challenges to be overcome to introduce them successfully here:

1) US judges are appointed, trained and managed in an entirely different way.  Though some are elected, once in post, the head judge of any local court is fairly autonomous.  He can choose to set up any problem solving court as long as he can secure the collaboration of local agencies.  In contrast, our judicial and justice system is pretty centralised.

2) US judges are independent, but do not interpret their independence in a very restrictive way.  This means they know and meet regularly with criminal justice agencies, discuss individual offenders with criminal justice agencies (indeed they chair the pre-meeting before any problem solving court sitting), and engage with offenders in court – exhorting, nagging and sometimes telling off.  This is not the English way (a magistrate was officially reprimanded for encouraging an offender in court to desist from growing drugs because her brother had died of an overdose) so our interpretation of independence may need some adaptation for our problem-solving courts to thrive.

3) There is a risk that problem solving courts may bring more people into the criminal justice system by widening the net. Already the police feel that they often fulfil the role of social worker. If practitioners feel those who commit crime will be able to access services more easily through the courts, they may process more cases into the courts.  In an ideal world mainstream services should be delivered to those who need them outside the criminal justice system – its a more efficient and preventative approach. Of course, those in problem-solving courts should be supported to access services.  The key is to make sure that those before the court are there because of the crimes they have committed, not because of the services they need and have been denied.

4) Many prolific low level offenders have chaotic lives, and find it hard to turn up for normal court appointments.  The more appointments, court and otherwise, they are obliged to turn up for, the more appointments they are likely to miss.  Problem solving courts involve offenders coming back regularly for their progress to be reviewed.  I absolutely understand the need to sanction people in some way for non attendance, but also feel that these offenders need reminders and help to get to court.  Otherwise we will end up breaching more offenders, or arresting them on warrant, both of which would be counter-productive if the offender was not committing more crime.

Having set out the challenges, I am really excited by the possibilities of problem-solving courts in England and Wales, particularly for women.  Problem solving courts at their best address the underlying reasons why people commit crime and help offenders turn their lives around.  I’ll never forget the graduation ceremony I witnessed in Ann Arbor, Michigan of veterans (ex-service people) who had completed the veterans’ court programme.  They had overcome addictions, found jobs and housing and desisted from crime.  The court was full of mentors and well wishers.  The graduates spoke movingly of their gratitude to the court and the judge. and we had a party afterwards to celebrate.  The judge was the leading light of the party.