Problem-Solving Courts

David H Marble & John L Worrall. 21st Century Criminology: A Reference Handbook. Editor: J Mitchell Miller. 2009. Sage Publications.

Problem-solving courts, also called specialty courts, are a fairly recent, but rapidly growing development in the American criminal court system. Problemsolving courts are specialized courts that develop expertise in particular social problems, such as addiction, domestic violence, or family dysfunction, because their caseloads consist primarily of these types of criminal cases (Dorf & Fagan, 2003). The first of them was a drug court created in Dade County, Florida, in 1989 (Jeffries, 2005). Besides drug courts, the most common types of problem-solving courts are domestic violence courts, mental health courts, and community courts (Casey & Rottman, 2005).

While not all problem-solving courts are the same, they share common elements that distinguish them from traditional courts. First, they use judicial authority to address chronic social problems. Second, they go beyond simple adjudication of cases and attempt to change the future behavior of defendants through judicial supervision of therapeutic treatment. Finally, they work collaboratively with other criminal justice agencies, community groups, and social service providers to accomplish particular social outcomes, such as low recidivism, safer family environment, and increased sobriety (Berman & Feinblatt, 2001).

The Problem-Solving Court Movement

History of Development

Most authorities identify the creation of the first drug court in 1989 in Dade County, Florida, as the start of the problem-solving court movement (Jeffries, 2005). However, others argue that the juvenile court, first created in Chicago in 1899, was the first problem-solving court (McCoy, 2003). Progressive reformers who advocated for the creation of a separate juvenile court believed that separate courts were needed to more effectively address the problem of juvenile crime. Parallels can be drawn between modern problemsolving courts and the juvenile court in that both shifted the focus away from just punishment to attempting to address the individual needs of the offender and that both relied on the services and expertise of social service agencies (Berman & Feinblatt, 2005).

Berman and Feinblatt (2005) have argued, instead, that problem-solving courts came about in a spontaneous manner, without any type of centralized planning or leadership. While they agree that problem-solving courts borrowed from the juvenile court, other disciplines and movements were tapped as well, including alternative dispute resolution, the victims’ movement, therapeutic jurisprudence, and the problem-solving and “broken windows” reforms in policing (Berman & Feinblatt, 2005).

Problem-solving courts have drawn from both the successes and the weaknesses of alternative dispute resolution programs. Interest in mediation and other alternative dispute resolution programs stemmed from a desire to remove low-level crimes and disputes from an overworked court system. Advocates also championed the informal aspects of mediation that generally led to an agreement favored by both parties. One weakness of mediation is that participation is usually voluntary and parties that are not satisfied with an outcome can continue the fight in a different forum. Thus, a key difference between problemsolving courts and mediation or other alternative dispute resolution programs is the reliance on formal court operations and systems to determine outcomes (Berman & Feinblatt, 2005).

Problem-solving justice has incorporated many of the successes and values of both the victims’ rights movement and therapeutic justice. Domestic violence courts in particular focus on the needs of crime victims and involve victim advocacy organizations in decision making. The belief that particular communities can also be “victims” of criminal behavior was a major reason for the creation of community courts. Community courts ask for and receive much input from communities regarding the impact of public order crimes. While not a perfect example of therapeutic jurisprudence, problem-solving courts use the law and courts to address the physical and psychological needs of offenders through court-mandated and -monitored treatment (Berman & Feinblatt, 2005).

Other powerful influences over the creation of problemsolving courts were two recent reforms in policing, namely broken windows and problem-solving policing. Broken windows was a term introduced by J. Q. Wilson and Kelling in an article published in 1982 in Atlantic Monthly. Wilson and Kelling advocated changing the focus of policing from strict law enforcement to more order maintenance. They argued that overall crime levels could be decreased by concentrating on reducing low-level crimes such as vandalism and public intoxication.

Problem-solving policing was introduced by Goldstein in a 1979 article in Crime & Delinquency. Goldstein argued for a more deliberate inquiry into the underlying causes of and solutions to crime using resources within the community. Problem-solving courts also utilize community resources to identify and attempt to solve the underlying causes of crime. Community courts, in particular, also focus on combating low-level public order crimes with mostly community service sentences. Another link between problem-solving courts and recent reforms in policing is the focus on achieving real outcomes rather than simply case processing (Berman & Feinblatt, 2005).

A major impetus for the problem-solving court movement is dissatisfaction with the traditional criminal court. This is particularly true with regards to the handling of low-level criminal offenders. While the public and the media focus more on the sensationalism of violent crimes, the criminal courts are bogged down with mostly misdemeanor crimes that rarely capture the attention of either the public or the media. Judges have expressed concern over the limited options available for the low-level drug user or public order offender (Berman & Feinblatt, 2005). Communities and victims are weary and frustrated over the apparent “revolving door” of justice through which minor criminal offenders are arrested, tried, sentenced to a few days or weeks in jail, and returned to the community to offend again.

Objectives of Problem-Solving Courts

A main objective of problem-solving courts is to go beyond mere case processing by attempting to address the needs of offenders, victims, and the community. The frustration with the state of misdemeanor justice in the traditional criminal courts and a desire to change the actions of criminals, improve the safety of victims, and enhance the quality of life in residential communities are the main forces behind problem-solving courts (Berman & Feinblatt, 2005).

Problem-solving courts attempt to change criminal behavior through court-ordered and -monitored treatment and more accountability in sentencing. Drug courts require substance abuse treatment as a condition of participation in the court. While drug treatment has long been used in sentencing by traditional criminal courts, the increased involvement by the judge in monitoring progress and compliance is a key component of drug treatment courts.

Community courts primarily deal with low-level public order offenders who have traditionally been sentenced to jail time or fines that seem to hold no deterrent effect. Judges in community courts are more likely now to sentence prostitutes, panhandlers, vandals, and other public order offenders to immediate sentences of visible community service (Berman & Feinblatt, 2005). In addition to these community service sentences, substance abuse treatment, employment counseling, housing assistance, and other services are typically available to assist the offender in overcoming some of the underlying causes of crime.

Addressing the needs of the victim is another objective of some problem-solving courts. This is particularly true with domestic violence courts. Ensuring the safety of victims of domestic violence is paramount in these courts. Judges presiding in domestic violence courts regularly issue restraining orders preventing offenders from having contact with their victims. Victims typically are brought to the court to make contact with victim services personnel so that they can receive other services such as counseling and safe shelter. In fact, some would argue that because domestic violence courts place the safety needs of the victim over the treatment needs of the offender, these courts are different from most other problem-solving courts and probably should not be identified with them (Casey & Rottman, 2005).

Enhancing the quality of life in residential communities is a major objective of many problem-solving courts, in particular community courts. Considering that the community is the “victim” of many public order crimes, community courts draw from the resources in the community to identify and then address ways in which communities suffer from these crimes. Residents are surveyed to identify levels of fear and concern over community crime. With this information, community leaders including court personnel, law enforcement, and business owners can work with residents to combat crime and address other concerns. Much of the work to improve the appearance of the community is done either by volunteers or by offenders sentenced to community service (Berman & Fox, 2005).

Why Problem-Solving Courts Are Important

Problem-solving courts are important because they attempt to address the deficiencies of the traditional criminal courts. The traditional criminal court may do a good job handling more serious violent offenders where incarceration is the expected and usual outcome. However, the effective handling of minor offenders requires something more than short periods of incarceration. Other defendants, such as drug users and mentally ill offenders, would seem to benefit more in the long run from mandated treatment rather than punishment alone. The deficiencies of the traditional court in handling the specific needs of victims and particular communities give reason to expect more from the judicial system that some problem-solving courts are better suited to provide. Ultimately, the measured effectiveness of problem-solving courts to adequately address these needs will determine how important they are.

Problem-Solving Courts Compared with Traditional Courts


Judges and attorneys working in problem-solving courts invite in and are more likely to work with those not traditionally connected with the courtroom work group. Problemsolving judges and attorneys collaborate with social service workers such as treatment providers, victim advocates, or employment services personnel (Wolf, 2007). Officials in drug courts depend on drug treatment providers to provide treatment to their offenders as well as information on the progress of these participants. Court officials in domestic violence courts work closely with victim services providers as well as treatment providers, as they not only try to treat offenders, but also protect victims and provide them other needed services. Similarly, judges and attorneys in mental health courts work closely with service providers to ensure mentally ill offenders receive the treatment they need. Officials in community courts likely share building space with a variety of service providers that assist offenders as well as community members in areas such as employment assistance, medical care, child care, counseling, and education (Berman & Fox, 2005).

Judges in traditional criminal courts usually turn over custody and supervision of offenders to community supervision or probation departments. These judges typically do not monitor supervision of sentenced offenders unless they are brought back to court for revocation proceedings. Judges in problem-solving courts more closely monitor the progress of offenders and thus have more contact and communication with other criminal justice officials such as probation or parole officers (Wolf, 2007).

Individualized Justice

Another key characteristic of problem-solving courts is the individualized or tailored approach to justice. Offenders are sent to these courts that have specialized caseloads based on the offense the person is charged with. Drug offenders make up the caseloads of drug courts. One of the main purposes for this specialization is to better ensure that offenders receive the treatment that will help them prevent future offending (Berman & Feinblatt, 2005). Another key purpose of this court specialization is to allow for more judicial monitoring of individual cases (Wolf, 2007).


More complete judicial monitoring is a key component of problem-solving courts. Where judges in more traditional criminal courts can hand off cases to other criminal justice officials, problem-solving judges retain jurisdiction and monitor offender compliance throughout treatment, community service sentences, or other sanctions (Wolf, 2007). Judges not only monitor offender compliance through reports sent in by supervision or treatment officers, but they also can have one-on-one contact with offenders through additional court appearances (Berman & Feinblatt, 2005). Offenders who violate supervision or treatment orders are quickly brought back before the judge. Judges then have the opportunity to sternly lecture, counsel, or impose additional sanctions on the offender. Judges are then in a better position to ensure that sanctions are carried out or that offenders are following through with court-ordered treatment (Wolf, 2007).

Better Information

A key difference between problem-solving courts and traditional criminal courts is that problem-solving courts typically have access to more information so that decision makers can make more informed decisions. Problemsolving judges typically have more complete background information on defendants, victims, and communities impacted by crime (Wolf, 2007). Judges as well as attorneys involved in problem-solving courts try to gain greater access to psychosocial information about defendants who are appearing in court (Berman & Feinblatt, 2005). Problem-solving judges also have more information about offender progress as they monitor defendants’ compliance with treatment orders. Furthermore, because of the specialized caseloads characteristic of problemsolving courts, judges, attorneys, and other professionals working in these courts gain valuable expertise and receive specialized training in specific types of offending (Wolf, 2007).

Focus on Outcomes

Problem-solving courts have required more in the way of gathering data and conducting research to assess effectiveness. Not content with simply processing cases, problemsolving courts identify specific outcomes that are desired and then conduct research to test whether those outcomes are achieved (Wolf, 2007). Reduced recidivism is an important outcome that is measured in evaluations of problemsolving courts. Other outcomes measured include impact on victims and communities (Berman & Feinblatt, 2005) and cost-benefit analyses (Wolf, 2007).

More Community Involvement

One type of problem-solving court, the community court (described further below), is particularly focused on improving community engagement. For more than symbolic reasons, community courts are located in residential urban communities rather than in downtown, commercial districts. The goal is to bring the court closer to the community it serves. Besides physical closeness, the community court also attempts to bring itself closer to the community through increased communication and collaboration with community leaders and members (Wolf, 2007). Residents can serve on advisory boards that make suggestions to court officials for new programming ideas or to inform them of community concerns or conditions. Community members also serve as volunteers in various programs or services and provide a valuable service in offering feedback in evaluations (Berman & Fox, 2005).

Types of Problem-Solving Courts

Drug Courts

Drug courts are specialized courts designed to handle mostly adult felony drug cases of nonviolent offenders who have substance abuse problems. The first drug courts were not as concerned about treatment as they were about improving the efficiency and speed of processing drug cases. These early courts were also more likely to handle less serious offenders and tended to be more like diversionary programs. Over the last decade, these courts evolved more into drug treatment courts that processed felony drug offenders and worked collaboratively with other agencies and treatment providers to ensure successful offender completion of drug treatment (Olson, Lurigio, & Albertson, 2001).

Specialized drug courts evolved from traditional courts that were unable to adjudicate and process drug offenders effectively. Traditional criminal courts failed to reduce drug offending. Traditional probation departments failed to identify and address the needs of supervised drug offenders. Drug treatment providers failed to effectively treat offenders under the traditional court referral processes (Goldkamp, 2000). Traditional sentencing practices led to the incarceration of hundreds of thousands of drug offenders on a yearly basis by 1998 (Hora, 2002).

Drug courts increased during the 1990s because of financial and political support from the federal government. Janet Reno, the U.S. Attorney General for most of the 1990s, was a key player in the formation of the first drug court in Miami in 1989. She and General Barry McCaffrey, former Director of the Office of National Drug Control Policy, supported specialized drug courts. Financial support from the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act of 1994 provided over $50 million to expand drug courts around the nation (Olson et al., 2001).

Domestic Violence Courts

Domestic violence courts are similar to other problemsolving courts in that they have specialized dockets and trained judges, and they engage in collaboration between court officials and other agencies and organizations in the community. However, some people hesitate to classify domestic violence courts as problem-solving courts because there are some key differences between the two. Domestic violence courts generally consider the needs of the victim as more important than the needs of the offender. In contrast to other problem-solving courts, domestic violence courts do not express optimism for the ability to treat successfully domestic violence offenders. Domestic violence courts consider victim safety and offender accountability as more important than offender treatment (Berman, Rempel, & Wolf, 2007). Interestingly, participants in domestic violence courts typically take part in classes for substance abuse, parenting, and mental health counseling. However, these are not viewed as treatment classes; rather, they serve as a monitoring tool for the court (Gavin & Puffett, 2007).

The first recognized domestic violence court was created in Dade County, Florida, in 1992 (Casey & Rottman, 2005). Other jurisdictions over time created dedicated domestic violence courts. While no precise number is given here of how many domestic violence courts exist in the United States, it is estimated that there are “many hundreds” (Gavin & Puffett, 2007).

An example of a domestic violence court is the one that was created in Salt Lake City, Utah, in February 1997. Court officials, along with police detectives, victims’ advocates, and domestic violence and battered women’s shelter counselors, worked in a collaborative effort to handle the 5,000 to 6,000 yearly domestic violence misdemeanor cases in Salt Lake County (Mirchandani, 2005).

Mental Health Courts

Mental health courts share characteristics of other problem-solving courts. The first such court appears to have originated in 1997 in Broward County, Florida (Boothroyd, Poythress, McGaha, & Petrila, 2003). These courts consist of specialized dockets of mentally ill offenders (Lushkin, 2001) where a team of court personnel and clinical specialists work collaboratively to address the problems of mostly nonviolent mentally ill offenders through court-ordered and -monitored treatment (Trupin & Richards, 2003).

While most mental health courts accept misdemeanor offenders only, the Brooklyn Mental Health Court, which opened in March 2002, also accepts felony offenders. Originally, this court limited participation to nonviolent felons, but later decided to accept violent felony offenders on a case-by-case basis. The Brooklyn Mental Health Court also limits participation to defendants who suffer from persistent and serious mental illness for which there is a known treatment. Participants in this court must agree to treatment mandates of 12 to 24 months depending upon prior criminal record and seriousness of offense (O’Keefe, 2007).

Community Courts

As mentioned above, community courts involve a collaborative effort among court officials, community leaders, and social service providers to combat social problems in a community (Casey & Rottman, 2005). However, rather than focus on one particular crime, community courts deal with a number of mostly misdemeanor public order offenses, such as prostitution, vandalism, minor assault, and criminal trespass (Malkin, 2005). Another defining characteristic is that many community courts tend to be located in residential urban communities rather than the commercial or downtown area of a city (Berman & Fox, 2005).

The first community court was the Midtown Community Court created in Manhattan, New York, in 1993. It handled minor public order offenses or “quality-of-life” crimes such as prostitution, shoplifting, drug possession, and vandalism. The main purpose of this court was to not only punish but also help the offender. Offenders were punished through visible community service or restitution sentences. They received help through on-site social services such as drug treatment, job training, and counseling (Kralstein, 2007).

Other Specialty Courts

While drug, domestic violence, mental health, and community courts are the most recognized problem-solving courts, others involving specialized caseloads have been created in the United States and around the world. San Diego created a homeless court in 1989 (Davis, 2003). Some states operate teen or youth courts where juveniles act as the various court officials in cases involving other teens who have committed minor offenses (Acker, Hendrix, Hogan, & Kordzek, 2001). New York City created a gun court to deal with felony gun possession cases. Using a single judge and specially trained prosecutors, city officials hope that the gun court will “provide swift and certain justice to offenders who violate gun laws” (Berman & Feinblatt, 2005, p. 130). South Africa, reported to have the highest incidence of sexual assault in the world, created a sex offender court in 1993 (Walker & Louw, 2003).

Parole reentry courts are another emerging problemsolving court. A number of states have created them with the intent of addressing the problems of parolees returning to the community (Maruna & LeBel, 2003). The Harlem Parole Reentry Court was started in June 2001. This court supervises the returning parolees in Harlem, in NewYork City, who have served prison sentences for nonviolent drug felonies. This reentry court shares similar characteristics with other problemsolving courts. An administrative law judge monitors parolee compliance with parole conditions. The court implements a system of sanctions or rewards for violations or compliance. Court personnel work collaboratively with parole authorities and treatment or community service providers. These community and treatment providers assist in areas of substance abuse treatment, job training, employment, housing assistance, and family counseling (Farole, 2007).

Research on Problem-Solving Courts

Drug Court Evaluations

Evaluations done on drug courts have focused on both processes and outcomes. A number of process evaluations examined the characteristics of drug court programs. Goldkamp, White, and Robinson (2001b) identified two main ways defendants entered drug court programs. Participants in some programs entered the drug court after they were arrested but before they were officially charged. If they successfully completed the program, charges were not filed and some were able to get their arrests expunged. Other programs allowed defendants to enter the drug court program only after pleading guilty to criminal charges, and they worked through the program as convicted participants. Their successful completion yielded reduced sentences.

Another process evaluation by Belenko and Dembo (2003) examined juvenile drug courts and found that they were organized in the same manner as adult drug courts. They found that critical elements of juvenile drug courts included dedicated courtrooms, judicial supervision of treatment, judicial monitoring of participant progress and compliance, collaboration between court officers and community treatment providers, and sentence reduction or case dismissal for successful completion.

Outcome evaluations done on drug courts during the 1990s showed positive results. Most drug courts reported lower recidivism among drug court participants. However, these early evaluations were criticized for failing to use control or comparison groups (Berman et al., 2007). In a review of successful crime prevention policies operating before the year 2000, MacKenzie (2006) identified drug courts as a promising crime prevention policy, but also noted the need for more positive evaluations using more robust methodologies and statistical controls.

Evaluations of drug treatment courts since 2000 have been mostly positive. Goldkamp, White, and Robinson conducted evaluations of drug courts in Portland, Oregon, and Las Vegas, Nevada. Their first study (2001a) focused on outcomes and concluded that, in general, graduates of drug courts had substantially lower rearrest rates than nongraduates for up to 2 years after entering the program. However, when they used various statistical controls, they found that the positive results for graduates were not consistent from year to year and were impacted by outside factors such as changes in political leadership.

Roman and Harrell (2001) conducted a cost-benefit analysis of a Washington, D.C., drug court program. They found a statistically significant reduction in crimes committed by drug court participants compared to nonparticipants. They found that every dollar spent on drug court programs yielded 2 dollars in crime reduction savings.

A 2003 evaluation of six New York drug courts reported significant reductions in recidivism compared to control groups. This study tracked the arrest rates of the drug court participants and the control group members for 3 years. A randomized study of the Baltimore City Treatment Court also showed significant reductions in recidivism over a period of 3 years (Berman et al., 2007).

Galloway and Drapela (2006) conducted an evaluation of a drug court in a small nonmetropolitan county in northwest Washington. They found that graduates of the drug court, when matched with a comparison group of probationers, were less likely to be rearrested. The differences in the arrest rates between the two groups were statistically significant.

O’Keefe and Rempel (2007) conducted an evaluation of the Staten Island Treatment Court in New York. They used a one-to-one matching method of drug court participants with a comparison group of defendants who did not participate in the drug court. While selection for participation was not randomized, participants were closely matched with nonparticipants according to various demographic and crime-related factors. O’Keefe and Rempel reported a 46% reduction in recidivism over 1 year for drug court participants compared to the comparison group. The 18-month rearrest rate for the participants was 25% less. The 18-month reconviction rate for the drug court participants was 44% less than that of the nonparticipants.

Recent review or meta-analysis studies have also shown reduced recidivism for drug court graduates. Belenko (2001) conducted a review of 37 published and unpublished evaluations of drug courts between 1999 and April 2001. Most of the studies reported lower recidivism for drug court participants. Three of the studies used random assignment between participation in the drug court and control groups and they all reported lower recidivism for drug court participants. D. Wilson, Mitchell, and MacKenzie (2002) conducted a review of 42 drug court evaluations and found that 37 reported lower recidivism rates for drug court participants compared to nonparticipating defendants in control groups.

A general consensus now exists that drug courts are an effective crime prevention policy. Berman et al. (2007) stated that drug courts “generally produce significant reductions in recidivism” (p. 20). Cissner and Rempel (2007) concluded that “adult drug courts significantly reduce recidivism, although the level of impact varies over time and by court” (p. 31).

Domestic Violence Court Evaluations

There have not been many rigorous evaluations of domestic violence courts. The evaluations that have been done demonstrate encouraging results for victims and mixed results for defendants. Victims of domestic violence are more likely to receive advocacy assistance and other services from domestic violence courts. Victims have expressed more satisfaction with domestic violence courts than with traditional criminal courts. Some studies of domestic violence courts found significant reductions in case dismissal rates, increases in the percentage of defendants ordered to participate in batterer programs, and increases in jail sentences for domestic violence offenders. There have been differing results on recidivism of offenders. Some studies found lower recidivism rates, while other studies found no reduction in recidivism (Gavin & Puffett, 2007).

Mirchandani (2006) conducted an extensive review of the Salt Lake City domestic violence court and identified three procedural innovations that helped encourage offender responsibility. The first innovation was a common plea agreement where defendants received suspended sentences in exchange for agreeing to a court order to complete 26 weekly sessions of counseling. The second innovation was a three-stage review system by the court that required offenders to provide proof of their compliance and progress in counseling. Offenders were required to provide evidence of their having made contact with the counseling agency within 10 days. Furthermore, they had to provide a 30-day progress report and a 6-month completion report to the court. The third innovation used by the Salt Lake domestic violence court required that the same court personnel handle all domestic violence cases. Over time, these officials developed expertise and familiarity with all other stakeholders involved in trying to combat domestic violence in Salt Lake City.

Gover, Brank, and McDonald (2007) evaluated a domestic violence court in South Carolina. They found that compared with defendants processed in traditional courts, defendants processed in a domestic violence court were significantly less likely to be rearrested for domestic violence. Gover et al. conducted 50 victim and 50 defendant interviews of participants in the domestic violence court. Both groups expressed satisfaction with their experiences in the court and were generally satisfied with the outcomes of their cases.

Labriola, Rempel, and Davis (2007) conducted a randomized trial study of the different approaches used in domestic violence courts. Participant offenders were randomly assigned to different groups with some receiving batterer treatment, others receiving high levels of judicial monitoring, and others with less judicial monitoring. These various treatment groups were then matched with a comparison group of offenders who received neither batterer treatment nor judicial monitoring. The groups were tracked for 1 year after sentencing. Labriola et al. found no reduction in rearrests for those in batterer programs as well as no difference in recidivism based on the levels of judicial monitoring.

Cissner (2007) completed an evaluation of a teen domestic violence court in Brooklyn, New York. This court adjudicated domestic violence offenders who were between the ages of 16 and 19. The evaluation contained no measures of recidivism and primarily documented the challenges of implementing a teen domestic violence court. These challenges included having trouble identifying and flagging eligible cases to be referred to the teen domestic violence court, gaining full cooperation and maintaining communication with all court actors and team members, having uniform agreement on a set of clear goals and objectives, and establishing contact with teenage victims.

Mental Health Court Evaluations

Because these courts are relatively new, there have been few evaluations completed (Casey & Rottman, 2005). The evaluations available have mostly focused on characteristics of offenders (Steadman, Redlich, Griffin, Petrila, & Monahan, 2005). One such evaluation of the Brooklyn Mental Health Court showed that the participants were mostly male, African American, single, and had poor work histories and education. A majority of them had previously been hospitalized for psychiatric purposes at least once in their lives. At some point in the year prior to their arrests, 15% of them had been homeless. Most of the participants had been diagnosed with bipolar disorder, schizophrenia, or major depression. Almost half of them were diagnosed with co-occurring mental illness and substance abuse disorders (O’Keefe, 2007). When asked in their 1-year interview, participants of the Brooklyn study indicated high levels of satisfaction with various aspects of their treatment. Outcome measures, done without a comparison group, showed mostly positive impacts of the court on measures of psychosocial functioning, homelessness, substance abuse, hospitalizations, service utilization, and recidivism (O’Keefe, 2007).

Community Court Evaluations

A few evaluations have been done of community courts. Kralstein (2007) conducted a review of seven evaluations done of four different community courts. The four courts were the Midtown Community Court in Manhattan, New York; the Red Hook Community Justice Center in Brooklyn, NewYork; the Hennepin County Community Court in Minneapolis, Minnesota; and the Hartford Community Court in Hartford, Connecticut. Kralstein reported that the evaluations consisted of surveys of community residents, offender interviews or focus groups, and larger-scale quantitative analysis using administrative court data.

Evaluations of both the Midtown and Hennepin courts showed that offenders were held more accountable in the community court compared to traditional courts. Offenders in the Midtown court were much more likely to receive community service or treatment sentences as compared to the more likely “time-served sentence” in the traditional Manhattan centralized court. The compliance rate for offenders was 75% in the Midtown court, which was 50% higher than the Manhattan court. Community surveys in Minneapolis showed that residents gave high marks for offender compliance with community service sentences from the Hennepin court. Community perceptions were high for both the Midtown and Hennepin courts in that majorities of citizens expressed willingness to pay more taxes to support their community courts. A high majority of residents in the Red Hook community reported positive views of their community court. Offender perceptions were mostly positive in studies done for the Midtown, Red Hook, and Hartford courts. Evaluations of the Midtown court found that prostitution arrests decreased 56% when processed through the community court. Midtown also reported a 24% reduction of illegal vending arrests and reduced arrests for offenders who had completed at least 90 days of court-mandated drug treatment.

Evaluations of other Problem-Solving Courts

Many of the emerging problem-solving courts have not been around long enough for many evaluations to be completed. One exception is the evaluation of the Harlem Parole Reentry Court (Farole, 2007). Farole found that the use of caseworkers in the reentry court improved communication between parole and treatment or service providers. Parolees participating in the Harlem reentry court tended to have greater access to various services to assist them in their transition. The reentry court parolees were matched with a comparison group of similar parolees who were not supervised by a reentry court. Regarding recidivism outcome measures, there was only one statistically significant difference between the two groups: The reentry court parolees had a reduced conviction rate on new nondrug offenses. However, there was no statistically significant difference between the two groups on new drug convictions or reincarceration rates.

Future Directions

The types and number of problem-solving courts will continue to increase. Officials are concerned with backlogs of court cases in the traditional criminal courts. This concern, combined with the generally accepted view that problemsolving courts are successful, will fuel the growth of problem-solving courts. Although relatively new in their appearance on the scene, problem-solving courts are now located in all 50 states (Berman & Feinblatt, 2005). The types of problem-solving courts will also continue to increase. If specialized courts can be created for drug, domestic violence, and mentally ill offenders, then they can also be created for the many other types of offenders. Victims’ rights organizations, like MADD (Mothers Against Drunk Driving), are sure to call for the creation of specialized DWI or DUI courts. If society believes that specialized sex offender courts will be successful at improving public safety and increasing offender accountability, they will surely come to be created and operating in most states.

Continuing good research on problem-solving courts is needed. Drug courts have been around the longest and are the most numerous of the problem-solving courts. They are also the courts that have been researched the most. Evaluations conducted in the first decade of their existence rarely used control conditions. However, more recent evaluation research has included comparison or control groups. Because of this better research, a general consensus has formed that drug courts are successful crime prevention tools. This focus on good research needs to expand to the other established and emerging problem-solving courts. Domestic violence, mental health, and community courts need to be subject to repeated evaluations using rigorous methodologies, testing whether their objectives are being met. Decisions as to the continuation of these problem-solving courts should be primarily based on the effectiveness of these courts in actually accomplishing what they were intended to.


The last 20 years have seen the creation and proliferation of problem-solving courts. These courts are different from the traditional criminal court in that they have specialized dockets, create a collaborative relationship between traditional court actors and outside organizations, and attempt to solve social problems rather than focus only on adjudicating cases. Evaluations of these courts are mostly positive, showing reduced recidivism among some types of offenders. Continued research is needed to justify the existence and growth of problem-solving courts.