Problem-Solving Courts (Homeless Courts, Mental Health Courts, Veterans Courts, Drug Courts, Community Courts, etc.)
Problem-solving courts use an individualized approach to address the underlying problems of people who have committed offenses in order to reduce the likelihood of repeat offenses and increase the likelihood that they can be reintegrated in the community, while protecting public safety and producing better outcomes. Problem-solving courts—including homeless courts, as well as mental health courts, Veterans courts, drug courts, community courts or other specialized courts—can facilitate linkages to the housing and services people experiencing homelessness need while removing warrants and other obstacles that can prevent them from getting or keeping housing, employment, public benefits, and other opportunities.
Problem or Challenge:
People experiencing homelessness may be arrested or issued citations for misdemeanors or “quality of life offenses” such as vagrancy, sleeping in a public place, failing to pay a bus fare, obstructing traffic on the sidewalk, possession of an open container, public intoxication, illegal use of shopping carts, jaywalking, etc. People experiencing homelessness may be unable to pay fines for low-level offenses, which can escalate if not paid quickly. They may fail to appear in court because of the chaos of life on the streets, competing demands as they seek food and shelter, or not having clean clothes for a court appearance. As a result warrants may be issued for unpaid fines and missed court appearances. These outstanding warrants can create significant barriers to housing, employment, public assistance, getting a driver’s license, and other necessities related to ending a person’s homelessness. When people cannot afford to pay fines they can be arrested and incarcerated with significant costs to the public and the individual, particularly if incarceration interrupts participation in treatment or results in the loss of a job or housing.
Problem-solving courts are often used to address misdemeanor charges and warrants, but they can also be used for people who have been diverted from the regular court system while more serious charges may be pending. In addition to misdemeanor charges or quality of life offenses, people with mental illness, substance abuse problems, or co-occurring disorders may face more serious charges that result from behavior related to untreated mental illness or possession of illegal drugs. If convicted and incarcerated they may lose eligibility for housing assistance and face long-term barriers to accessing housing or other benefits.
Over the past two decades a growing number of communities around the country have created problem-solving courts, including homeless courts, mental health courts, Veterans courts, drug courts, community courts or other specialized courts. These different types of courts have important similarities, and they share important principles, as described by the Center for Court Innovation in New York State. These courts are based on a belief that courts can and should play a role in trying to solve the problems that are fueling caseloads in the legal system and recognition that the coercive power of courts can change people’s behavior and produce better outcomes. There are over 2,500 problem-solving courts in the United States, and many of these courts work to address problems related to homelessness, mental illness, and drug addiction.
While different types of problem-solving courts may use different practices and focus on achieving different goals, there are also important similarities. Problem-solving courts are created through partnerships that engage committed judges who work with partners from a range of public and private agencies and systems, including prosecutors, defense attorneys, probation officers, and providers of mental health, substance abuse treatment, social services, shelters, and housing, as well as other community organizations. Interagency communication and collaborative planning efforts build greater trust among partners and a shared commitment to problem-solving.
Enhanced information is critical to the success of problem-solving courts. Judges and court staff receive training about issues like mental illness, homelessness, and drug addiction. The courts develop systems to ensure that judges and other staff have and can share better information about participants and about the community context for offenses and the availability of services and supports for recovery. Courts often rely on thorough intake interviews and assessments of risks and needs for each participant. This information can be used to develop individualized service plans and to help judges and others make better decisions.
Solutions are individualized. Punishment or alternative sentencing is customized and seeks to address offenders’ underlying problems, thereby reducing the likelihood of repeat offenses. In many cases the goal of problem-solving courts is to reduce the use of incarceration, which is very expensive and may be an ineffective intervention for some people. As an alternative, the justice system links people to individually-tailored, community-based services such as job training, drug treatment, or mental health counseling. Community service may be another option, allowing people to “pay back” the community for harms they have caused.
Many problem-solving courts hold regular meetings. Judges, prosecutors, defense attorneys, and service providers may meet regularly to discuss each participant’s progress and to strategize about solving problems or addressing gaps in community resources and linkages across systems and programs. Regular court appearances may be required for participants and provide an opportunity for judges and other court staff to offer encouragement to participants and recognition for progress they are making. While hearings may be somewhat less formal and bound by procedure than a typical court, judges use the stature of their position to encourage compliance, and they often speak directly to defendants. Judges can also use their authority to create an atmosphere of respect and compassion for people with mental illnesses or other challenges and those who have experienced homelessness, using hearings as an opportunity for education and stigma-busting, reducing fear, normalizing an understanding of the symptoms of mental disorders, and offering hope for recovery.
Participants are held accountable, and the justice system sends a message that all criminal behavior has an impact on community safety and has consequences. Clear communication and rapid response are essential features of problem-solving courts. Problem-solving courts often require regular and rigorous compliance monitoring, and may require regular drug-testing or documentation of participation in activities identified in a participant’s service plan. The judge can impose consequences for non-compliance, requiring letters of apology, increased frequency of reporting, or short-term jail stays; Sanctions may be tailored to individual needs and risks. Generally jail is used only after other attempts have been made to trouble-shoot treatment plans and encourage participation and compliance. Not only are individuals held accountable, but courts may also hold service providers accountable for reporting on their work with participants. The courts themselves collect data and track outcomes in order to be accountable to the public for reducing recidivism, protecting public safety, and responding to the needs of individuals and communities at a cost that is lower than incarceration.
The nation’s first homeless court was established in 1989 in San Diego, California. Homeless courts use “alternative sentencing” approaches that allow a person to participate in programs to address recovery or self-sufficiency goals as a substitute for fines or time in jail. Participants may be required to develop a plan for personal growth and self-sufficiency with help from shelter caseworkers or other service providers and present evidence of progress to the court. In lieu of jail time or fines, courts may accept proof of participation in activities such as substance abuse counseling, AA/NA meetings or other recovery services; life-skills, computer, literacy, or GED classes; volunteer work, job training or search, or housing search. Homeless courts often operate on a regular basis in homeless shelters or other service settings, providing access to judges who have the power to dismiss charges and remove warrants for misdemeanor offenses. Typically a person has been participating in shelter programs or other services and demonstrated some progress before meeting with the judge, and service providers not only document participation and progress but also act as advocates for their clients.
Mental Health Courts
The first mental health courts were created, beginning in the 1990’s, in response to concerns about the significant numbers of persons with mental illness, including persons experiencing homelessness, who were being arrested and entering jails, sometimes repeatedly, often for offenses related to symptoms of untreated mental illness and co-occurring substance use problems. The first recognized mental health court was established in Broward County, Florida, and other pioneering mental health courts were created in King County, Washington, Anchorage, Alaska, and San Bernardino County, California. There are now hundreds of mental health courts in the US. They vary widely in terms of target population, charge accepted (misdemeanors and/or felonies), plea arrangements, intensity of supervision, program duration, and types of treatment or other support services available. These courts reflect an understanding that standard punishments such as probation and incarceration often have limited effectiveness in changing problem behaviors for people with untreated mental illness, who may not understand court procedures or why they are in jail, and may be unable to comply with probation requirements. Instead, mental health courts operate with specialized dockets that serve offenders who have been identified as having serious mental illnesses, and the court uses a collaborative problem-solving approach to link participants to the treatment and services they need.
People have the option of voluntarily participating in mental health court and a judicially-supervised, individualized treatment plan developed jointly by court staff and treatment professionals or facing charges in the regular criminal justice system. Participants usually meet frequently with the judge or other court staff who offer incentives and encouragement to stay engaged in treatment and to comply with other conditions imposed by the court. If participants are placed on probation, there may be a probation officer who is a mental health specialist who has a background or training in mental health and a reduced caseload to allow for more intensive supervision and support.
Mental health courts often allow flexibility in developing individualized plans and establishing terms of participation in services, and they may adjust treatment plans in response to problems with adherence, recognizing that mental disorders can contribute to difficulties with judgment and controlling behavior, but the judge and court staff promote individual accountability for actions. Mental health courts will often offer incentives and plenty of encouragement, but they may also impose sanctions for non-participation in treatment services, including more frequent court appearances, closer monitoring, or time in jail. Supports are available to help connect participants to treatment, housing, and other recovery support services. For successful participants, pending criminal charges, sentences, or other penalties are usually reduced or dismissed.
Many communities around the country have created drug courts with the goal of stopping the abuse of alcohol and drugs and related criminal activity. Drug courts usually offer people who face drug-related criminal charges the opportunity to have charges dismissed or to have a sentence or other penalties set aside or reduced in exchange for participation in treatment. In drug courts rules are often clear and certain and the judge can reward progress or penalize non-compliance in an effort to keep participants engaged in treatment. Drug courts facilitate access to treatment programs and treatment providers keep judges informed of participants’ attendance and progress. Frequent drug testing is often required and sanctions, which may include time in jail, are imposed for the use of alcohol or drugs.
Often functioning as hybrid drug and mental health courts, Veterans courts have been created in a growing number of communities to respond to the special needs of Veterans who end up in the criminal justice system, often facing criminal charges as a result of untreated substance use, mental health problems, and difficulties readjusting to civilian life. These specialized courts divert Veterans into treatment instead of incarceration and offer services to support recovery and address other needs in an effort to stop the revolving door of drug use, crime, incarceration, family conflicts, homelessness, and re-arrest. The first Veterans treatment court was created in Buffalo, New York, in 2008, and it was soon followed by similar programs in Alaska and Tulsa, Oklahoma. Today there are almost 100 Veterans courts in operation with many more in the planning stages.
Veterans treatment courts often require regular court appearances (a bi-weekly minimum in the early phases of the program), as well as mandatory attendance at treatment sessions and frequent and random testing for substance use (drug and/or alcohol). The judge and other partners involved in Veterans courts share an understanding of the culture of military service and the challenges returning Veterans may face, including post-traumatic stress and traumatic brain injuries that can result in cognitive impairments or emotional difficulties that can contribute to substance use or interpersonal conflicts. Veterans treatment courts often operate in close coordination with the treatment services and other resources available from VA Medical Centers and other Veterans organizations, and often function as one stop shops, linking Veterans to services and benefits they have earned.
Don’t reinvent the wheel. Problem-solving courts of one type can learn from the experience of problem-solving courts of another type and collaborate to solve common problems. In addition to sharing ideas, courts can share resources and strategies, including assessment tools, protocols and linkages to community resources. A “boundary spanner”—a person who can speak the language of multiple systems—can nurture communication and build bridges, facilitating the development of shared strategies. A committee that reflects multiple problem-solving disciplines can bring together key stakeholders and provide a forum for sharing information, strategies, and resources. Joint training opportunities covering topics such as best practices in judicial monitoring and case management or the latest science about problems of mental illness and addiction can help to support successful implementation of problem-solving courts while encouraging the development of informal peer linkages. In some communities, different types of problem-solving courts are co-located in a single building. A drug court, mental health court, and homeless court may be able to share some staff for intake, assessment, case management, probation, and health-related services.
Collaboration and access to housing and services is critical. Problem-solving courts cannot succeed without access to treatment programs and other services to which people can be diverted. These programs must be a good match to the needs of participating individuals. Connections to housing can provide an important foundation to support participation in treatment or other services that are required by the court. Many of the people with mental health disorders or substance use problems who have repeated contact with the legal system for non-violent or quality-of-life offenses have experienced homelessness and have lost connections to natural supports. A case coordinator can play an important role by facilitating connections and helping participants get to appropriate services.
Community engagement is important. In addition to focusing on the needs of individuals, problem-solving courts also focus on the impacts on communities and victims of crime. The courts seek to improve community safety and reduce recidivism, balancing attention to risks and needs in designing individualized service plans or imposing consequences for non-compliance. Effective problem-solving courts engage a range of people and community organizations in collaborative efforts to improve public safety. The courts can encourage greater trust between residents and the legal system.
Be very sensitive to ethical issues, particularly the use of coercion to motivate people to engage in treatment for mental illness or substance use problems. This is particularly important when a person has been charged with a criminal offense because of behavior related to the symptoms of their mental illness. Problem-solving courts use a combination of incentives and sanctions to motivate participation in services and changes in harmful behaviors and often monitor participants much more closely than would be likely in a standard criminal case. Courts must be careful to avoid imposing more onerous requirements than might be applicable in a regular court acting upon the charges facing the offender. As explained by Judge Stephanie Rhoades, the presiding judge of the mental health court in Anchorage, Alaska,
I think the use of sanctions for people who aren’t taking medications is problematic. The truth is that compliance rates with medications are very low among the average population, and we don’t put people in jail for not taking their asthma meds every day, even though the cost to society is that they may have more emergency room visits. I think that there is a stigma involved in judges using jail as a consequence when clients either decide to go off their medications or aren’t taking them regularly, and I think we need to look very carefully within ourselves about whether we are treating people with mental disorders differently than we treat other people with chronic medical disorders who aren’t complying with their regimens.
Because of concerns about issues related to coercion, some problem-solving courts focus on offenders who have been charged with relatively serious misdemeanors and non-violent felony offenses for whom the consequences of conviction could include incarceration for a period significantly greater than the sanctions that might be imposed by the court if a participant does not follow through on service plan requirements.
Evaluations of problem-solving courts have demonstrated positive outcomes often by comparing results for program participants with those for people with similar needs and criminal charges who are involved in traditional courts. These outcomes include:
- Reductions in recidivism
- Fewer new bookings into jail and fewer days in jail
- Greater participation in treatment and increased frequency of treatment services
- Improved independent functioning
- Decreased substance use, including use of alcohol and drugs
- Reductions in homelessness
- Less criminal conduct
- Fewer inpatient psychiatric hospitalizations
- Lower risks to public safety than traditional adjudication
- Improvements in quality of life and psychosocial functioning
- More favorable interactions with the judge and perceptions that they have been treated with greater fairness and respect than in traditional courts
The costs of operating specialized problem-solving courts can be offset by significant savings in costs for incarceration. For example, an evaluation of the Anchorage Coordinated Resources Project (ACRP), one of the first mental health courts established in the US (in operation since 1998), found that combined institutional savings generated by ACRP ($705,390) were estimated to be almost two and one-half times the program’s annual operating costs ($293,000).
More information about problem-solving justice is available from the Center for Court Innovation, which has documented best practices with support from the US Department of Justice, Bureau of Justice Administration.
More information about homeless courts is available from the American Bar Association. Information about the City of Houston’s Homeless Court is available from the Coalition for the Homeless of Houston/Harris County.
Information about mental health courts is available from several sources, including two reports, The Essential Elements of a Mental Health Court and Mental Health Courts: a Primer for Policymakers and Practitioners prepared by the Council of State Governments, with support from the US Department of Justice, Bureau of Justice Assistance.
Information about drug courts, including an interactive map with links to information about drug courts in nearly every state, is available from the National Association of Drug Court Professionals.
Information about Veterans treatment courts, including an interactive map with links to information about Veterans courts in many states, is available from Justice for Vets.