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The evidence on problem-solving courts

New review from the Centre for Justice Innovation finds that many (but not all) models of problem-solving courts are effective. But what will Liz Truss do?

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The MoJ and problem-solving courts

In December 2015, the then Justice Secretary Michael Gove announced the creation of a working group on problem-solving courts. This working group was to ‘examine models of problem-solving courts and advise on the feasibility of possible pilot models to be taken forward in England and Wales in 2016/17’.

Recent media coverage has suggested that the new Justice Secretary, Liz Truss, may be less CJI problem solving courts cover interested in the model, although she has reiterated her commitment to an evidence-based justice model.

So the timing of a new (24 August 2016) report from the Centre for Justice Innovation is perfect. Entitled “Problem-solving courts: an evidence review“, the report seeks to do exactly what it says on the tin and examine the evidence for and against different types of problem-solving courts.

What are problem-solving courts?

Problem-solving courts put judges at the centre of rehabilitation. Generally operating out of existing courts, problem-solving courts yoke together the authority of the court and the services necessary to reduce reoffending and improve outcomes. They embrace a wide family of distinct models, all of which seek to improve public safety and the legitimacy of the justice system in the eyes of the public.

The key features of problem-solving courts are:

  • Specialisation of the court model around a target group.
  • Collaborative intervention and supervision.
  • Accountability through judicial monitoring.
  • A procedurally fair environment.
  • A focus on outcomes.

Do problem-solving courts work?

The Centre for Justice Innovation review suggests:

  • There is strong evidence that adult drug courts reduce substance misuse and reoffending. They are particularly effective with offenders who present a higher risk of reoffending.
  • The evidence on juvenile drug courts is negative. It suggests they have either minimal or harmful impacts on young offenders.
  • The evidence on family treatment courts and family drug and alcohol courts is good. It suggests that they are effective in reducing parental substance misuse and can reduce the number of children permanently removed from their families.
  • The evidence on mental health courts is good. High-quality international evidence suggests that mental health courts are likely to reduce reoffending, although they may not directly impact offenders’ mental health.
  • The evidence on the impact of problem-solving domestic violence courts on outcomes for victims, such as victim safety and satisfaction, is good. The evidence on their ability to reduce the frequency and seriousness of a perpetrator reoffending is promising. This is encouraging when set against the lack of other effective options for reducing reoffending by perpetrators of domestic violence.
  • The international evidence that community courts reduce reoffending and improve compliance with court orders is promising. However, the evidence of their impact in England and Wales is mixed (though drawing conclusions from a single pilot site is difficult).
  • There is promising evidence to support the application of the key features of problem-solving courts to two specific groups of offenders where they have identified multiple and complex needs: female offenders at risk of custody and young adults.
  • The evidence suggests that key features of problem-solving courts may be especially relevant for young offenders with complex needs at risk of custody in youth court. However, any enhancement of problem solving features in youth court needs to take into consideration clear evidence that, where possible, youth offenders should be kept away from the formal system through triage and diversion, as prosecution and court appearances themselves can be criminogenic, i.e., producing or tending to produce crime.

Why do problem-solving courts work?

The review suggests:

  • Procedural fairness – the evidence that perception of fair treatment leads to better compliance with court orders — is not simply a nice-to-have, but rather it may be the most important factor in driving better outcomes. Perceptions of the courts are as important, if not more important, than both the decisions the court reaches and the treatment a problem-solving court can deliver.
  • Effective judicial monitoring rests on certainty and clear communication. These factors are more important than the severity of the sanctions which the court can bring to bear. This may be especially relevant for mental health courts, where a more therapeutic and procedurally fair environment may be more important than a set of drug court- like incentives and sanctions.
  • The evidence on the importance of the responsivity principle in the risk-need-responsivity model supports the tendency for problem-solving courts to specialise in working with specific groups of offenders such as women with complex needs, problematic drug users, or those suffering from mental illness.

What are the problems with problem-solving courts?

The review suggests:

  • There is a perceived risk that problem-solving courts can lead to net-widening, i.e., drawing greater numbers of people into the justice system, especially if they are treated as additions to existing community sentences rather than as alternatives to higher-level sanctions.
  • Without the appropriate support from experts in managing offenders, problem-solving court judges can cause harm by benignly ‘overdosing’ low-risk offenders with multiple requirements or can unwittingly use inappropriate, non-evidence-based interventions.
  • Like many new and innovative interventions, advocates for problem-solving courts can run the risk of over promising. Problem-solving courts are not silver bullets. The impact they can have on reoffending is positive but it is also modest, like any other evidence-based intervention. There is scant evidence that they can, on their own, significantly impact the overall numbers of people in prison, especially if they are set against increases in sentencing tariffs.


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