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Russell Webster

Russell Webster

Criminal Justice & substance misuse expert and author of this blog.

Planning for problem-solving courts

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Centre for Justice Innovation publishes an extremely helpful delivery plan for trialing problem-solving courts in England & Wales. Will the MoJ follow through?

Reducing the prison population

Although politicians shy away from talking about it, one of the main drivers of prison reform is that imprisonment is a very expensive and rather ineffective way of tackling crime.

If more effective and cheaper methods can be found, the MoJ would be more likely to find resources to reform the prison system and, in theory, make longer term savings too.

One approach which has found favour with both experts and politicians is problem-solving courts.

Last month (September 2016) the Centre for Justice Innovation published a review into the effectiveness of this approach which found good evidence for the success of  adult drug courts, family drug and alcohol courts and mental health courts (as well as good evidence that juvenile drug courts may even be counter-productive.)

This month (12 October 2016) the same organisation published a delivery plan for problem-solving courts which was designed to push government to commit to this approach.

The delivery plan

The document sets out what the CJI claims is an affordable, deliverable and practical — if ambitious — plan for developing a set of 10 new pilot projects which can begin to hear cases in 2017.

Central to the plan is the insight from existing projects that they are built on leadership from local judges and the commitment of local services to a new way of working. This local commitment highlights that the resources to deliver sustainable approaches are already present and provide a platform on which new initiatives can build.

The Centre calls for the support and replication of existing approaches while also initiating a new suite of problem-solving court projects. In order to ensure consistency and evidence-based practice, new pilot sites will need to be carefully selected by senior judiciary and supported by a national practice development team.

The CJI argues, convincingly, that the key to extending the problem-solving approach across criminal and family courts is to ensure that problem-solving courts are delivered cost-effectively and sustainably by unlocking local initiative and enthusiasm, from both the judiciary and service providers.

The plan seeks to combine this kind of local commitment with the strategic oversight of the senior judiciary, and providing the courts with practical support and additional powers, in order to develop a set of pilots which are evidence-based, sustainable and ripe for replication if they prove successful.

The plan is based on five inter-linked principles set out below.

rubiks

1: Combining judicial leadership with local service innovation

Building sustainable problem-solving courts will demand a combination of judicial leadership and the commitment of local services. The most successful of our existing problem solving courts are ones where the approach has grown out of a pre-existing attempt to improve outcomes.

For example, the Sefton Complex Cases Court is closely linked to a liaison and diversion team provided by Merseycare as part of the NHS England pathfinder sites. It uses this resource to provide extra support for vulnerable defendants. The court is overseen by a single, dedicated judge who has had an important role in shaping the project.

Another example is St Albans Crown Court’s Choices and Consequences (C2) programme. C2 works with prolific offenders engaged in non-violent acquisitive crime, usually related to substance misuse. It is a partnership between the court and Hertford Constabulary’s Integrated Offender  management (IOM) team. Offenders receive support from an assigned police officer member of the IOM team, and drug treatment from Hertfordshire’s commissioned drug treatment service.

2: Evidence-led innovation

Although the Centre advocates that the key to sustainable initiatives is development from the ground up, they are also clear that there should only be pilots of approaches where there is clear evidence that they can be effective. In addition to evidence about the different forms of problem-solving courts which are effective, there is also accumulated evidence about why problem-solving courts work:

  • The effectiveness of judicial monitoring (ongoing supervision of an offender by a judge at regular review hearings) rests on certainty and clear communication. These factors are more important than the severity of the sanctions which the court can bring to bear.
  • Ensuring that defendants feel fairly treated is may be the most important factor in driving better outcomes. This “procedural fairness” can be as important, if not more important, than both the decisions the court reaches and the interventions a problem-solving court can deliver.

3: Consistent approaches which can be replicated

The report points out the importance of starting out with the objective of developing projects which are scalable and replicable. Thinking about scale early on will help projects be clear about what approach they are testing, how they will measure their impact and the feasibility for other areas to adopt those models.

4: Supporting sites with practice development

Practice development support provides pilot sites with advice on proven approaches that have been tested elsewhere and support in innovating and experimenting with new services. Proper practice development support is rare but whent it happens provides a forum in which practitioners can share effective practice because most problems have been solved by someone somewhere.

5: Integrating problem-solving within changing court technology

The government plan for court modernisation and digitisation proposes the expansion of the use of virtual hearings and a single online system for managing cases. Problem-solving courts stand to benefit from these arrangements.

A number of existing problem-solving court models, for example, use pre-court conferences where professionals from a range of disciplines may contribute data and information into progress reports on clients. The ability to collate this data online into coherent, multi-disciplinary reports has the potential of saving professional time currently taken up in physical meetings.

Alternatively, phone and video conferencing could replace the requirement for service providers to travel to pre-court meetings. At the same time, a single online system for managing cases across criminal, family and civil jurisdictions offers the opportunity to identify where issues are being dealt with simultaneously in different courts and identify opportunities for co-ordination.

Conclusion

It remains to be seen how committed government is to problem-solving courts; but it is clear that if the MoJ does decide to pilot the approach more widely, the Centre for Justice Innovation has done much of the preparatory work. This delivery plan enshrines the central principles for an effective (and inexpensive) proper trial of problem-solving courts in an English and Welsh setting.

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