The Delaware judiciary announced Thursday that the state’s problem-solving courts will prioritize high-risk defendants and focus on long-term recovery, as leaders adopt a set of best practices for programs across the state.
The new standards, unveiled in a 70-page report by the Criminal Justice Council of the Judiciary, established minimum requirements for all of Delaware’s drug, DUI, mental health and veterans courts, which aim to provide specialized treatment and reduce the risk of recidivism among certain populations of offenders.
According to the report, the problem-solving courts would target high-risk or high-need defendants, who meet the diagnostic criteria for mental health disorder, substance use disorder or are at a substantial risk of reoffending.
Programs will be structured in phases predicated on achieving “realistic and defined behavioral objectives,” and graduation requirements would emphasize the “long-term recovery” of participants. In order to graduate, defendants would need to craft an aftercare plan, maintain at least 90 days of sobriety and either find employment or enroll in an educational program.
A prior history of drugs or violence would not automatically bar eligibility for the problem-solving courts, unless a defendant’s criminal record suggests they cannot be managed safely, the report said.
Officials announced the new requirements Thursday afternoon at the Delaware State Bar Association offices in Wilmington, in an event that featured Supreme Court Chief Justice Leo E. Strine Jr., Superior Court President Judge Jan R. Jurden, Superior Court Judge William C. Carpenter and Statewide Problem-Solving Courts Administrator Brenda A.M. Wise.
The announcement came amid a years-long review of Delaware’s problem-solving courts, which have expanded since the first statewide program went into effect in 1997. Last year, the CJCJ released a series of recommendations to bring the courts under one “umbrella,” in order to eliminate some of the deficiencies that had cropped up in the two decades since they were first enacted.
Thursday’s report was the first to memorialize some of those recommendations into a uniform policy, though future updates would be published “as new best practices and research are identified,” the report said. Individual problem-solving courts would still have the flexibility to make their own guideline consistent with the blanket policies outlined in the document.
Under the new requirements, the problem-solving courts will provide access to a “continuum of medical and behavioral health care,” and the courts will partner with treatment providers to determine treatment needs as determined by a “validated assessment instrument.”
High-risk participants with substance use disorder will receive six to 10 hours of counseling per week during the first phase of treatment and approximately 200 hours of services and contact with the problem-solving court team over a nine-to-12-month period. Those defendants will be drug tested at least twice a week at random times, including at nights and on weekends and holidays.
The courts will also encourage pro-social behaviors and work to identify ancillary services in the community, including job skills training, family therapy, mental health treatment, trauma treatment and/or housing assistance.
Jail sanctions of three to five days will be available in the programs, but are to be used “judiciously and sparingly,” the report said. In such cases, defendants would be provided access to counsel and may request a hearing.
Termination for a program will result in a sentence for the underlying offense that brought them to the problem-solving court.
The report also outlined administrative and training requirements for problem-solving court staff. The team for each court will include one judge, a prosecutor, defense attorney, coordinator, a law enforcement officer, a treatment provider and other ancillary service providers. The veterans treatment courts will also include a veterans justice outreach specialist, a representative from the local VA hospital and center and a peer mentor coordinator.
Judges on the courts will have the final say in decisions affecting a participant’s case. They will preside over the problem-solving courts for minimum two-year terms, and should participate in training regarding legal and constitutional issues every three years, the report said.