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 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.
“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.
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.•