In a sense all courts solve problems, although traditionally, the approach is punitive – translating a crime into how many months or years a defendant owes society and warehousing him or her in a prison. While not excusing drug abuse, domestic violence, child neglect and other ills, problem-solving courts take a therapeutic solution-oriented approach to reduce recidivism and guide offenders toward productive lives.
Problem-solving courts began about a quarter-century ago and now number more than 3,000 across the United States, housed among the nation’s approximately 16,000 state courts but on separate dockets. Even though initially uninformed by the research around the consequences of adverse childhood experiences and the trauma-informed care movement, proponents say they have always addressed ACEs and trauma without necessarily knowing they were doing so.
Drug courts were the first type of problem-solving court, beginning with one established in Miami-Dade County, FL, in 1989, and they have become by far the most common. The National Drug Court Institute counted 2,734 in 2012 (the National Association of Drug Court Professionals provides this interactive map). The National Center for DWI Courts counted 651 courts that deal with those offenders as of 2013. The National Center of State Courts counted 401 mental health courts as of same year. Other types of problem-solving courts cover domestic violence, homelessness, prostitution, veterans’ issues, and early childhood. The latter are sometimes referred to as “Safe Babies” courts. (The numbers of specific types of courts cannot be simply added together because many, especially in urban areas, contain more than one type.)
Typically, problem-solving courts involve a judge who heads up a team that includes the attorneys, the defendant and a clinical professional who develops a well-defined case plan and carefully monitors the defendant’s compliance. Judges work with defendants from the starting point of what has happened to them, rather than what is wrong with them, and they meet frequently to develop communication and working relationships.
“Some of the programs that we’ve seen are trauma-informed programs,” says Nicole Waters, principal court research consultant for the national center. “Mental health courts and veteran’s courts definitely delve into trauma issues. There is a wide gamut of courts operating in this capacity to deal with underlying social problems.”
While the awareness of and practice in trauma-informed treatment is “on the rise,” Waters says, it’s hardly universal. “Some courts are doing [trauma] assessments and then not integrating that in their treatment plan, which is a problem,” she says. “Some courts are more aware than others.” Prostitution courts are among the most consistent in dealing with trauma, she adds, given that the sex trade often attracts those who have experienced abuse in the past.