An Introduction to Community-Based Courts

The Importance of Community Control

Community or its absence pervades everything we do.  It controls our behavior through a socialization process that begins almost from birth.  Where it seriously deteriorates, “niche communities” fill the void, and can prove to be as destructive as the gang cultures in our prisons or as potentially beneficial as a church based youth choir.

State prison is a radical departure from what came before in the U.S., going back little more than 200 years. While prison is a necessary institution and provides an appropriate response to violent crime, it is not effective for non-violent offenders. Keeping non-violent offenders separated from family, friends, jobs, education, treatment and/or rehabilitation resources that exist in local communities, and isolating them among dangerous and violent criminals is a recipe for disaster.

The proven effectiveness of community control is not a historical vestige, but a critical means for controlling offenders, whether on probation, in treatment programs or county jail. Throughout history, communities have relied on social control to successfully encourage acceptable behavior and to correct the unacceptable. Drug court and Problem-Solving Courts are successful because they replicate the extraordinary ability of community to control anti-social behavior. Drug Court, in particular, creates an environment where court-based therapeutic communities can thrive and treatment, rehabilitation, reentry, and crime reduction strategies can succeed.

The following three policy papers demonstrate how the five percent of drug involved offenders currently in drug court (data provided by NADCP) can and should expand to accommodate the majority of high-risk drug-involved non-violent offenders through a comprehensive “next generation” drug court system, the Reentry/Drug Court. Success will require a paradigm shift in the criminal justice system (CJS), an understanding of the importance of community control and a rethinking of major issues critical to successful ex-prisoner “reentry”. Among those issues:

  • that community is central in all our lives, and that keeping the felon local makes a difference
  • that voluntary reentry programs often fail because of a lack of ex-offender accountability
  • that financing and resourcing of “reentry” systems need to be community-wide decisions
  • that powerful financial interests stand to benefit when we choose state/prison over local/jail
  • that reentry/drug court is not an isolated program, but an integrated system within a CJS
  • that there tends to be a disconnect between policy makers/researchers and CJS practitioners
  • that we often reach false conclusions based  upon the myths of “conventional wisdom”

That last point was brought home to me, when I recently reviewed a policy paper I wrote as one of a five part series for the Clinton transition team in 1993; The Principles of Court Ordered Rehabilitation: A Reality-Based Approach To The Drug–Using Offender. In it I tried to reach beyond the myths that we practitioners live by, to the truths that work for those caught in the cycle of drug abuse and criminality. Though accepted in principle, the drug court concepts espoused in that paper have failed to approach their full potential. It may be time to take that analysis to the next level, exposing the myths that continue to hold us back and promoting truths that will help us realize our goal of a more just, humane and effective criminal justice system.

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