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A niche of specialty courts called “problem solving” courts -which handle drug, mental health and community crime caseloads-are thriving across the nation. Hundreds more are in the planning stages as the success stories roll in. The first community court, established in New York, is cited as one factor in taming once-notorious Times Square. The pioneering drug court in Miami-Dade County, Fla.-the first of 1,100 nationwide-has dramatically cut recidivism rates, while 85% of the defendants who enroll in the nation’s first mental health court, in Indiana, complete the program. All of these courts share one essential quality: They are places where justice and social services are meant to come together. These courts have a “dual commitment to changing the lives of individual offenders and the quality of life in communities,” asserted David Rottman, principal court research consultant for the National Center for State Courts. When these courts are successful, defendants get well and communities rid themselves of the physical and psychic damage done to them by repeat and sometimes habitual offenders. Judges are assigned to special calendars within existing courts or to stand-alone courts where they hone their expertise in these drug, mental health and community courts. Variations in the way these courts operate are plentiful. First community court Opened in 1993, the Midtown Community Court located near New York’s Times Square is a prototype for the more than 20 others that have opened in 13 other states. These courts are slowly replacing the revolving doors through which prostitutes, transit fare-beaters and graffiti “artists,” for example, were released back into their communities without much punishment-often no more than the time served in jail before arraignment. Although sometimes offenders were also fined or ordered to perform community service-or both-compliance was often not monitored because judges had more serious cases on their calendars. That changed in community courts, where low-level offenses are the crux of the calendar, although some community courts hear other community matters as well. In addition to misdemeanors and violations, Midtown hears small claims cases up to $5,000. In another New York City court, the Red Hook Community Justice Center in Brooklyn, probably the most expansive community court in the country, a single judge hears misdemeanors, violations, housing court and family court cases such as juvenile delinquency and civil orders of protection. The impetus for these courts came from the community, said John Feinblatt, who became New York City’s criminal justice coordinator in 2002. Between 1991 and 1993 he coordinated the planning for the Midtown court with a grant administered by the nonprofit Fund for the City of New York, an incubator for civic innovations designed to make cities better places to live. “The Midtown court was born out of the frustrations felt by government, the business community and people who lived and worked in the area,” he said. No one disputes that in 1991, Times Square-New York’s theater district and a tourist mecca-was vice-ridden and downright squalid. It is not like that anymore. “Midtown almost from the start got improved compliance with court orders, an improved sense of procedural fairness among defendants and an improved sense of confidence among the public,” said Greg Berman, executive director of New York’s Center for Court Innovation, an independent research and development arm of the court system-a laboratory for testing new ideas. Berman readily concedes that the reasons for the reduction in a crime are complex and that property development and other policy decisions also played roles in the lower crime rates in Midtown’s jurisdiction, which encompasses three police precincts and all of Manhattan’s prostitution cases. “But the area is much less aggressive,” asserted Berman. “Much less ‘in your face’-the court is a huge win for the neighborhood.” In the mix of defendants in the Midtown court are those with lengthy criminal histories who have committed a new minor crime. These offenders often face consequences very different from those who are new to the system. Someone new may receive only two days of community service and three days in a treatment readiness program. The community service jobs are often those suggested by a community advisory board. Completion of the job is intensively monitored by court personnel, whether it be cleaning an area or removing graffiti. But “those with lengthy criminal histories face longer-term incarcerations and therefore longer-term interventions,” said Berman. That might include mental health counseling, drug treatment, community service and job training. Jail sentences are hung like Swords of Damocles over offenders, who have to enter guilty pleas at arraignment to participate. Then, if the sword does fall-because of failures of the defendant or the system-the sentence is often longer than it would have been in a traditional court. But Midtown’s design may not be for everyone. “Planning has to be done at the local level,” said Berman, whose center offers technical assistance to other states. “The model has to make sense for the local conditions. Our multiple stakeholders who were first invested in the court’s creation are still involved. Some still donate money to the program and some offer jobs to offenders who have come through the job-training program.” The system is adversarial, but as one official put it, “We try to clear away the crap and understand the underlying and complicated problems affecting defendants and communities” so that mutually beneficial outcomes can be achieved. First drug court More than 1,100 drug courts have taken root nationwide since the first one was launched in Miami-Dade County, Fla., in 1989. Circuit Judge Jeffrey Rosinek took over the Miami-Dade drug court in 1999. It is a preplea court, which means that an offender doesn’t enter a plea. But Florida has many other kinds of drug courts, including adult, juvenile, driving under the influence, post-conviction and re-entry drug courts (for prisoners being released). There are also dependency courts for children of abusers whose parents may lose custody if they can’t stay drug free, and a judicial monitoring program on courts’ regular calendars for substance abusers who don’t otherwise qualify for drug courts. In Florida, but not all states, a prior violent felony precludes participation in a drug court. If an offender in Miami-Dade County chooses to participate in drug court and then wants back into the adversarial system, he or she is going to have to test clean first under Rosinek’s rules, said Cynthia Wolper, a public defender who has been assigned to the court for the past 18 months. But an offender who is willing to stick it out gets a shot at housing, educational opportunities, a job, a charge dismissed, an arrest record sealed or expunged and a life without addiction. The court has 1,500 cases, mostly felonies involving mainly purchasers and users because alleged possessors with intent to sell are not eligible for it. Between 1998 and December 2003, the recidivism rate from the Miami-Dade court was 4.2%, a very low number compared with the 60% to 70% rates for addicts leaving prison without re-entry programs, Rosinek said. He noted that the 4.2% represents rearrests in Miami-Dade only, so the exact number is unknown and likely somewhat higher. Both the intensity of treatment, which takes place in a minimum one-year program, and the sanctions and incentives offered during the program’s various phases account for the program’s success, said Assistant State Attorney Courtney Rowan. “It’s a team effort and Judge Rosinek’s commitment and determination to defendants’ drug-free future really makes it work,” Rowan said. In the first phase, which is detox, offenders report to a group program every day, and sometimes receive acupuncture. In phase two, which is stabilization, it’s group or individual therapy two to three times a week, at the end of which offenders are introduced to a 12-step program. The final phase is two 12-step meetings a week and counseling. Urine testing continues during all phases. They have to pay for these programs too, in cash or community service, on a sliding scale, or they can attend a court-approved private program. Among the incentives are housing programs, including one for those who enter the program homeless; job training; and an employment program. And if the offender is younger than 23, the county will pay him or her to go back to school. More than 500 drug courts are being planned, according to a drug court clearing-house at American University’s School of Public Affairs. Mental health courts Many consider Marion County, Ind.’s Psychiatric Assertive Identification Referral/Response program (PAIR), which started in 1996, to be the nation’s first mental health court, though it isn’t called that. Ninety-three other mental courts now dot the country, with many more planned. Cases are mainly referred to PAIR by judges, family members, jail mental health workers and public defenders. For an offender to qualify, a mental illness must be serious, for example schizophrenia or bipolar disorder. The district attorney’s office must approve the removal of a case to the diversionary mental health court. That won’t happen unless the victim consents, which they do about 90% of the time, said Marianne Halbert, a public defender who has been with PAIR since its inception. Her 140-client caseload comes from the misdemeanor, felony, community, traffic and domestic violence courts of Marion County, which includes Indianapolis. With few exceptions, the underlying cases are nonviolent. “Defendants are required to come to court to sign a diversion agreement, which is accompanied by a written treatment plan,” said Halbert. The court receives written reports from mental health providers every month and offenders frequently return for compliance hearings. “No one is ever put in jail for noncompliance,” said Halbert. “We try to put them back on track with positive reinforcement.” About 80% to 85% of the defendants complete the program. The others go back into the adversarial system and can plead guilty or go to trial. Halbert said that those who exercise that right are not treated more harshly than if they had never entered the program. There are no statistics on recidivism because they can’t afford a study. “Our program has never been given a dime,” Halbert said. It relies on the county mental health association and community mental health centers. “Our goal is to decriminalize mental illness and get people out of the criminal justice system and into treatment.” But mental health courts do have their critics. Heather Barr, a senior staff attorney in New York’s Urban Justice Center’s mental health project, said she fears that the mentally ill are being drawn into an ever-widening net by criminalizing behavior to get people into treatment rather than having treatment available to those when and where they need it. “It’s becoming easier to get treatment through the courts than off the streets both for people with mental illness and substance abuse problems,” she said. “That’s just not right.” Post’s e-mail address is [email protected].

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