Last night I had to good fortune of being able to attend an event being ran by my University's Centre for Law Crime and Justice entitled Transforming Justice - Transforming Lives. The event centred around the idea of Problem Solving Courts and how they've been developed and used in certain parts of the USA from the early 1990's. Certain States, in a bid to take a more progressive approach to solving the specific problems caused by repeat offenders who for the most part commit minor offences on a regular basis.
The American Problem Solving Courts take a variety of forms, from drug courts and domestic violence courts to mental health courts and take a different approach to traditional courts, giving the Judges a slightly different role from the norm. Traditionally in a conservative adversarial system, the Judge can almost be viewed as the umpire or referee, ensuring that the litigants both play fairly and the best man (best lawyer) wins, in problem solving courts the emphasis is on the best outcome and the judge will take a much greater interest in individual cases. Participation is voluntary, so those accused of a crime are given an option, would you like to go through to traditional court system or would you like to try to try the problem solving courts?
This approach is important, as repeat offenders are often doing so because of specific underlying problems, such as psychosis or drug problems. With this in mind the Judge in a Problem Solving Court will be empowered to use drug rehab or psychological treatments as an alternative or addition to custodial sentences. Rather than seeing an accused once or twice they may see them ten or twenty times, ordering them to return to court regularly to check in. In certain circumstances, upon successful completion of a course of treatment, the person in question will 'graduate' from the program.
One of the key benefits of this is reduced rates of recidivism, one independent study found that in in two districts with comparable populations and socio-economic demographics the district with the Problem Solving courts had a 42% lower rate of recidivism.
This more compassionate helpful way of dealing with offenders strikes me as similar to the way that we in Scotland deal with child offenders via our Children's Panel system. Here children who have committed crimes are dealt with by the same system that deals with children who are victims of neglect and abuse, recognising that their problems often stem from similar root causes. This progressive approach to using the Judicial branch of the State to deal with the underlying causes and problems associated with crime, drug abuse and other social ills strikes me as the very much the way forward in terms of how we should think and act as a society when trying to deal with our collective problems and is a much more constructive approach than that of punishment alone.