Problem-solving courts cut recidivism, help defendants

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What can courts do to reduce jail and prison populations, slash recidivism, and make a positive difference in the lives of people in the criminal justice system? Mounting evidence suggests problem-solving courts are one answer.

“What they are is a new paradigm of thinking about criminal justice,” said Rep. Eric Koch, R-Bedford, whose House Bill 1016 would add to the statutory framework for such courts that he’s championed since 2010. A major component of the bill would allow courts and staff to provide certain rehabilitation services and collect the fees for them.

koch-eric-mug.jpg Koch

Koch said he sees expanding problem-solving courts – most commonly drug courts, re-entry courts and mental health courts – dovetailing with efforts in the General Assembly this year to revise the criminal code. He said the courts also are good public policy because they address the constitutional requirement of rehabilitation as a goal of the criminal justice system.

“Over the long haul it saves costs to the system rather than cycling people in and out,” Koch said. “In the long run, this is very taxpayer-friendly and life-changing for the individual.”

Problem-solving courts are a form of diversion available to judges in the jurisdictions where they function. They aim to address underlying causes that may range from economic circumstances to mental illness or addiction.

“We believe all courts ought to be problem-solving courts,” said Larry Landis, executive director of the Indiana Public Defender Council. “We’re finally getting to a point where when people are committing crimes, we’re not just reactive in a punitive way.

“This is not being soft on crime, this is being smart on crime,” he said. “If there’s a way to reduce recidivism, we win.”

It’s with the consent and usually the labor of a judge and court staff that the programs get up and running, tailored to a community’s needs, said Diane Mains, a staff attorney at the Indiana Judicial Center, which certifies problem-solving courts.

Beginning with the annual report to the Commission on Courts that will be filed for 2013, the Judicial Center will report performance measures for Indiana’s problem-solving courts, but available data is encouraging. A 2007 Judicial Center study surveyed outcomes from five drug courts. Across those courts, 11.6 percent of people who graduated from drug court programs reoffended within 2 years, compared with 37.2 percent of similar offenders who didn’t go through drug court.

Allen Superior Judge John Surbeck has overseen re-entry court in the county for more than a decade and recently was honored with the William H. Rehnquist Award for Judicial Excellence from the National Center for State Courts, in large part for his work as a leader in establishing problem-solving courts.

“The Supreme Court and the Judicial Center really created an atmosphere that encourages judges to do things outside the box, to do extra things, which is what we do in problem-solving courts,” Surbeck said. He said re-entry court has helped reduce the rate of recidivism by one-third.

Mains said instruction in problem-solving courts, such as the “Thinking for a Change” curriculum, focuses on cognitive behavior and attempts to get to root causes. House Bill 1016 would allow court staff to provide that kind of rehabilitation training as long as the staff member is certified in the training they provide.

Similar training is available for offenders who may misuse alcohol or drugs, for instance, but aren’t deemed to have addictions, she said. The bill is not intended to allow court staff to provide more intensive counseling requiring licensed professionals.

“If you talk with any judge, they will talk about the continuing cycle of seeing the same people and not addressing the reason” they offend, Mains said.

Vanderburgh Superior Judge Wayne Trockman oversees several of the county’s problem-solving venues that include drug, re-entry, veterans, juvenile drug and forensic-diversion courts.

problems“We’ve moved from mainly a drug-court model targeting low-risk offenders over the past 12 years to more of a re-entry court model,” Trockman said. Offenders with sentences of as much as 15 years at the Department of Correction may qualify.

“A person who would normally receive a 15-year sentence is not necessarily any less qualified for our court than someone who would normally receive a six-year sentence,” Trockman said. “It’s pretty easy to catch addicts breaking the law, and an addict can rack up a criminal history pretty fast,” which can lead to sentence enhancements.

Trockman said the Vanderburgh problem-solving courts try to have a docket of about 100 people at any given time. Each Tuesday, he holds court for program participants who come in for regular update visits. A board with members from law enforcement, housing providers, faith-based services, businesspeople and others monitors program participants. Board members meet with the judge and provide progress assessments ahead of his visits with program participants.

“We develop relationships with people in the program, and we have a short dialogue,” Trockman said of a typical Tuesday in court. “We let them set goals and give them positive feedback on what they’re doing right, and issue sanctions if they’re not doing things right.”

Vanderburgh County operates its problem-solving courts through fees, county assistance, and federal and DOC grants. Community buy-in has allowed Trockman to initiate some novel approaches to entrenched problems.

Through forensic diversion, he can identify offenders who face a minimum nonsuspendable sentence for drug dealing, for example, and treat them differently. “I’ve designed it where they don’t go to (DOC) general population at all,” Trockman said. They instead go to therapeutic detention. Upon successful completion, they transfer to community correction.

The success rate of that program – judged as those who don’t reoffend three years after completion – is about 60 percent, Trockman said. Re-entry and drug courts have a success rate of 70 to 80 percent. Vital to success, along with treatment and counseling, are wraparound services that address employment and housing. “You cannot be successful with someone if you don’t help them find a job, and a job that pays a living wage,” he said.

Surbeck said the Allen County re-entry court relies on community corrections staff to provide wraparound services including housing, employment and counseling.

steele-brent2012-mug Steele

Sen. Brent Steele, R-Bedford, chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee, has witnessed positive changes in the problem-solving courts in his district. Lawrence County’s drug court, for instance, has “some fantastic success stories, and the reason is the judges in the county being very proactive and donating the time and effort for the court,” Steele said.

When a defendant has an opportunity to have a charge diverted to a drug court or other problem-solving court and continue to be productive while getting needed assistance, the outcome is desirable for everyone, he said. But he’s cautious about creating too many such venues too quickly.

“What I don’t want to see is having too many problem-solving courts” that undermine the structure and authority of the Circuit and Superior courts, Steele said. “So far it sounds good, but it’s subject to go bad.”

Trockman said he can tally how much has been saved in DOC incarceration costs – $45,000 or more each year per inmate – for people who’ve instead gone through problem-solving courts.

“We have countless stories of women regaining custody of their children, fathers mending relationships with families and starting to pay child support maybe for the first time in their lives,” he said.•


  • Reality Based Sentencing
    Based upon some of the bills currently before this session of our legislature, it is a shame that many of our legislators won't do some good where there is already a great success story and that is the recidivism rates amongst sex offenders. The latest statistic according to IDOC says there is only a 1.05% same crime type recidivism rate, second lowest to murder. In my opinion, if any group has earned a chance at reduced sentencing coupled with intensive counseling, which has been proven to work, based on steadily declining recidivism rates, it is lower level sex offenders. While recognizing every case is not the same and there is absolutely crimes deserving lengthily prison sentences in every crime category including sex offenses, there are others that might be better served by keeping offenders involved in treatment, in the community, in their jobs and in their families, all of which appear to reduce all types of recidivistic offenses by offenders. It would appear, if the main goal of our judicial system is truly to reform and rehabilitate offenders and protect the public, the majority of those convicted of sex crimes have earned that chance based upon reality, not upon the few headline grabbing stories that fuel public fear and outrage. Chuck Nute Member:

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  1. Especially I would like to see all the republican voting patriotic good ole boys to stop and understand that the wars they have been volunteering for all along (especially the past decade at least) have not been for God & Jesus etc no far from it unless you think George Washington's face on the US dollar is god (and we know many do). When I saw the movie about Chris Kyle, I thought wow how many Hoosiers are just like this guy, out there taking orders to do the nasty on the designated bad guys, sometimes bleeding and dying, sometimes just serving and coming home to defend a system that really just views them as reliable cannon fodder. Maybe if the Christians of the red states would stop volunteering for the imperial legions and begin collecting welfare instead of working their butts off, there would be a change in attitude from the haughty professorial overlords that tell us when democracy is allowed and when it isn't. To come home from guarding the borders of the sandbox just to hear if they want the government to protect this country's borders then they are racists and bigots. Well maybe the professorial overlords should gird their own loins for war and fight their own battles in the sandbox. We can see what kind of system this really is from lawsuits like this and we can understand who it really serves. NOT US.... I mean what are all you Hoosiers waving the flag for, the right of the president to start wars of aggression to benefit the Saudis, the right of gay marriage, the right for illegal immigrants to invade our country, and the right of the ACLU to sue over displays of Baby Jesus? The right of the 1 percenters to get richer, the right of zombie banks to use taxpayer money to stay out of bankruptcy? The right of Congress to start a pissing match that could end in WWIII in Ukraine? None of that crud benefits us. We should be like the Amish. You don't have to go far from this farcical lawsuit to find the wise ones, they're in the buggies in the streets not far away....

  2. Moreover, we all know that the well heeled ACLU has a litigation strategy of outspending their adversaries. And, with the help of the legal system well trained in secularism, on top of the genuinely and admittedly secular 1st amendment, they have the strategic high ground. Maybe Christians should begin like the Amish to withdraw their services from the state and the public and become themselves a "people who shall dwell alone" and foster their own kind and let the other individuals and money interests fight it out endlessly in court. I mean, if "the people" don't see how little the state serves their interests, putting Mammon first at nearly every turn, then maybe it is time they wake up and smell the coffee. Maybe all the displays of religiosity by American poohbahs on down the decades have been a mask of piety that concealed their own materialistic inclinations. I know a lot of patriotic Christians don't like that notion but I entertain it more and more all the time.

  3. If I were a judge (and I am not just a humble citizen) I would be inclined to make a finding that there was no real controversy and dismiss them. Do we allow a lawsuit every time someone's feelings are hurt now? It's preposterous. The 1st amendment has become a sword in the hands of those who actually want to suppress religious liberty according to their own backers' conception of how it will serve their own private interests. The state has a duty of impartiality to all citizens to spend its judicial resources wisely and flush these idiotic suits over Nativity Scenes down the toilet where they belong... however as Christians we should welcome them as they are the very sort of persecution that separates the sheep from the wolves.

  4. What about the single mothers trying to protect their children from mentally abusive grandparents who hide who they truly are behind mounds and years of medication and have mentally abused their own children to the point of one being in jail and the other was on drugs. What about trying to keep those children from being subjected to the same abuse they were as a child? I can understand in the instance about the parent losing their right and the grandparent having raised the child previously! But not all circumstances grant this being OKAY! some of us parents are trying to protect our children and yes it is our God given right to make those decisions for our children as adults!! This is not just black and white and I will fight every ounce of this to get denied

  5. Mr Smith the theory of Christian persecution in Indiana has been run by the Indiana Supreme Court and soundly rejected there is no such thing according to those who rule over us. it is a thought crime to think otherwise.