Building Community Into Reentry Courts

[Click on video above, for “Slideshow” of San Francisco Reentry Court Family and Friends’ Barbecue]

THE BEST OF: The following article, initially published on Feb. 1, 2009,  describes how Community remains the most effective means of behavioral control, and the most important factor in a successful court-based reentry process. 

The powerful National Reentry Movement  is substantially local government, community and volunteer driven. Reentry Court judges and other practitioners need to accept the notion that they can be a critical part of reentry reform, without being the controlling force.

The Reentry Court is the Drug Court model writ large. But conventional drug court processes and dynamics often stray from the model,  and may not work  well for a reentry court. Drug courts, for better or worse, are insular creatures of a  judicial system, with judicial concerns; finding funding to support court structure, expanding resources to create effective court programs, and often dictating policy to a small group of community-based organizations (non-profit and otherwise). The historical reason for the court’s insularity are, to a significant extent, based on the courts’ fear of being monitored or controlled  by outside organizations and individuals.

Our problem, is that an insular/controlling court can negatively impacts the problem-solving court field, (and the reentry court, in particular) by limiting  the court’s ability to work within the community. While the courts should provide needed focus and participant accountability, the Reentry Community derives its extraordinary influence and impact from local government, as well as faith-based, fraternal, and other participating non- profit organizations. The federal government, in its  ground breaking  “Second Chance Act”, has taken an important step toward  recognizing  the importance of local community.

Let’s not forget that Problem-solving courts work, in large part because  they emmulate (often, without realizing it) the most effective means of  behavioral control, the communtiy itself.  It is when community began to break down  in the U.S. (about 200 years ago) that prisons were created, ultimately usurping  the function that historically resided in the community ( See: An Introduction To Community-Based Courts).

Therer is an important final justification for looking to community for support, collaboration, and resources. While reentry funds are pouring into our communities from state and federal sources, in a desperate attempt to staunch overcrowded prisons and failed reentry strategies, there is no guarantee that those funds will continue to flow. Community is the most effective and least expensive resource available to the reentry court. Faith-based, fraternal, and othe volunteer organizations, are the foot soldiers of the reentry movement and stand ready to make a major contribution to your reentry court program; committed to restoring and healing their communites as they have from time immemorial. We, in the criminal justice system, need to engage them as equals and partners. The first question you and your court/community may need to ask, is what is your relationship with the greater community, are you an active member of your community’s “reentry task force”,  and how can you strengthen the community of intervenors needed to meet the challenge of the returning ex-offender?

[Note: While the document below, was written in 1993, the issue of community-based funding for community-based courts remains unresolved: see Co-Funding Of Community-Based Courts ].


Systemic Approaches to Sentencing: Part 3

April 16, 2012

Part 3: The ‘Specialty Sentencing Court” as a Problem-Solving System


The idea that sentencing courts ought to be special and distinct entities is not a new one. There are and have been many urban jurisdictions that deal with sentencing and/or probation violations with full time specialty courts. As with the early drug courts of the 1980s, the purpose of special sentencing/probation courts is often to streamline the process and move the offender through as quickly as possible. Concern for how the offender can be best prepared for a return to community with appropriate supervision and/or treatment was and is often overlooked (click on the image on the left for “Reentry Drug Courts”National Drug Court Institute Monograph Series, No. 3, “Reentry Drug Courts”, JTauber, circa 1999).

Existing sentencing or probation courts should have the responsibility to do more. Like other problem-solving court systems, Sentencing and/or Probation Courts need to create a bond between offender and the court, that among other things, reminds both of their obligations, one to the other. Special Sentencing Court Systems need to deliver evidence-based sentencing practices, processes too complex and demanding for even the most dedicated individual judge. ( “Arming the Courts with Research: Ten Evidence Based Sentencing Initiatives to Control Crime and Reduce Costs”, a PEW monograph, Judge Roger Warren, ret.)

The best Problem-Solving Sentencing Courts will supervise thorugh separate tracks, as do most problem-solving courts in large urban jurisdictions. The Drug, Mental Health, and DUI Courts, though often presided over by the same judge, separate out the offender by the nature of the problem that the offender faces. Though the offender may have more than one serious issue, different problems call for different resources, information, staffing and treatment.

The Veterans Court provides a particularly good model for the Sentencing judge in smaller jurisdictions The Veterans Court has relatively few participants (typically less than 50), and is able to deal with the “Whole Person”. An individual is directed to the Veterans Court because he or she is faced with a criminal case, not because they have a particular issue or problem. The Veteran’s Court is prepared to deal with any and all issues facing the Veteran. To that extent, the Veteran’s court is a particularly good model for a “sentencing court”. The Veterans court mets out appropriate responses, as  a sentencing courts should, dealing with many different issues, and providing the appropriate supervision and services as required.

 The next segment will look at the importance of the judge in sentencing and monitoring supervision

Problem-Solving Courts And The States

Reentry Courts have a unique position among Problem-Solving Courts in their relationship to state government. Reentry Courts are almost entirely creatures of the state (at least, those dealing with returnee’s from state prison, are largely under state jurisdiction) and rely on state judicial, legislative, and executive support for their existence.

What follows is the first in a series of articles that explore the critical relationship between Reentry Court and the State.

Fifteen years ago, few people who were aware of Drug Courts understood their extraordinary promise. Initially nearly everyone believed that Drug Courts were and would remain a purely local phenomenon, one fostered by local innovation and commitment alone, with little state or national impact. The success of the drug court, has resulted in heightened state interest in them, as well as their progeny, Problem-Solving Courts (special courts that use the drug court model to address other serious offender issues, ie., DUI, Domestic Violence, Mental Health, Veterans Courts, etc.). It is clear Problem-Solving Courts, like Drug Courts, can no longer be considered “individual programs”, isolated from the rest of the state criminal justice system. Indeed, Drug Courts and Problem-Solving Courts have gone “mainstream” as the Conference of Chief Justices and the Conference of State Court Administrators unanimously endorsed them in years 2000, 2004, and 2009

Initially however, state governments had been relatively uninvolved in the development of drug court programs. Many state agencies, as well as the organizations that represented them on the national level, expressed indifference that at times bordered on opposition to the development of the Problem-Solving Court model. State Judicial Leaders were typically cool to the Problem-Solving Courts concept. The drug court model was new, thought expensive and untested by reliable evaluations. In 1994, the National Center for State Courts (NCSC), representing the Conference of Chief Justices and the Conference of State Court Administrators, rejected the notion of the drug court as a “special” court.

Soon after, National and State Judicial leadership reversed course, with NCSC and the nation’s judicial leadership providing strong support and leadership on behalf of the problem-solving court model, (see: CCJ/COSCA Resolution). There were many reasons for their  pro-active role on behalf of Problem-Solving Courts. Without state judicial leadership’s guidance, State Judicial Administrators feared that courts would develop inefective programs, while consuming scarce court resources.  There were concerns that programs developed by one judge would be undone by the next.  They worried about judges becoming media “stars” in their communities, and neglecting their other judicial duties. They legitimately wondered how these programs could survive without a level of standardization and institutionalization of practices and procedures.

Similarly, State Departments of Alcohol and Drugs had been slow to support the drug court concept.  Funding in particular had been a significant issue.  Initially, reluctance seemed be based on a generally held belief among treatment agencies that the criminal justice system, with its greater resources should be responsible for funding drug treatment through the criminal courts.  There was also the concern that the criminal justice system would dominate any treatment program they participated in.  They worried that the courts would overwhelm treatment agencies with clients without corresponding new resources.  They were concerned that individual courts would provide limited and inadequate assessments and treatment to participants.  They feared that the criminal justice system would ignore the scientific research on effective treatment and demand prison for those who didn’t conform to court mandates. Those fears have receded with the development of effective court/treatment partnerships and the emergence of drug court judges and other practitioners as effective advocates for the expansion of treatment resources.

Governors and Legislatures also felt the need to react to this new phenomenon. They were certainly aware of the extraordinary media coverage and political support from across the political spectrum.  But, like everyone else in state government, they were concerned that Problem-Solving Courts would consume disproportionate state funding needed for other purposes in times of limited funds. They questioned whether Problem-Solving Courts were truly effective and cost-efficient.

Of course, state policy makers were not the only ones who saw the need for state involvement. While deeply ambivalent about the extension of state power and influence over what were grass-roots community-based courts,  Problem-Solving Court judges and other practitioners  welcomed state financial support. Ultimately,  judges looked to state leaders to help them legitimize their programs and convince their colleagues and county administrators of the importance of their work.  Treatment providers looked to the state for resources and direction.  Probation and parole officers requested resources to maintain reasonable caseloads.  And defense attorneys and prosecutors sought political support and affirmation for their non-punitive approach and non-traditional roles.  For the most part, all agreed that a statewide presence was needed.  The form that involvement was to take was a more difficult issue to determine.

The limitations of a strictly local Problem-Solving Court program are now clear. Even with the commitment and assistance of the federal government, the impact of Problem-Solving Courts, in both quality and quantity of services and numbers of participants reached would be severely limited without strong state financial and political support. A statewide Problem-Solving Court policy is now generally accepted as necessary in order to institutionalize court policies and procedures, stabilize  program structures, standardize  treatment requirements, and expand eligibility  to those who most need assistance, the high risk offender.

© 2007 -  Reentry Court Solutions. All Rights Reserved.

Reentry Court Solutions Powered by Communications Team