Specialty Courts

What can Specialty Courts do?

States have created specialty courts, also called problem-solving courts, to divert certain cases from the traditional legal system and potentially save money as a result of housing fewer people in jails. These courts are limited to dealing with specific types of cases rather than a geographic area. Some specialty courts are related to specific criminal offenses, like drug possession, while others target a category of case, such as business-related. The courts are usually staffed with individuals who are familiar with the terminology involved and the resources available to resolve the issues that arise during the case.

Some of these specialty courts were created through funding by the Bureau of Justice Assistance. The State of New York has expanded its specialty courts through a court innovation program that seeks new ways to intervene in the cycle of imprisonment.

Critics say these courts subvert justice by requiring the accused to essentially admit guilt, while others say the treatments offered are unproven not scientifically sound. Also, specialty courts often require judges to preside over the same cases for a prolonged period, reducing the jurists’ ability to be impartial.

The effectiveness of specialty courts is debatable. They take many cases off the docket of mainstream district courts, allowing many to realize the promise of a speedy trial and resolution yet some would point to the opioid drug crisis as evidence that drug courts don’t work because they haven’t solved the drug abuse problem in nearly 30 years.

Types of Specialty Courts

Drug courts have been instituted by every state, starting with Miami-Dade County, Florida in 1989. Due to periodic epidemics of drug abuse and addiction, drug courts seek to divert nonviolent and first-time offenders from jail by offering alternatives like treatment programs and supervised probation with drug testing. There is some evidence that creating specialty drug courts is more effective at reducing recidivism, or relapses, than the traditional court system. Prior to entering drug court, the accused often have to sign waivers that admit to their addictions and suspend some of their rights while under court supervision. Some states have juvenile and family drug divisions as well.

Veteran’s Courts are aimed at providing veterans of the armed forces with mental health and addiction treatment programs in lieu of jail time for military service-related offenses. These offenses are limited in scope and usually must meet certain criteria, such as being non-violent, misdemeanor-level, and demonstrably related to military experiences, such as post-traumatic stress disorder. Veteran’s courts are created by state initiatives.

Mental Health Courts have proliferated across the country since the national model for psychiatric hospitalization was revamped in the 1980s.Similar to other specialty courts, these seek to address ongoing psychiatric issues that drive individuals to break the law. Oftentimes there is evidence that local police arrest the mentally ill in order to get them into treatment programs. Mental health courts are overseen by judges who revisit the treatment programs of individuals at regular intervals and may recommend that anyone who is noncompliant with the agreed-upon mental health protocol is tried in a district court for the criminal issue he was originally charged under.

Domestic Violence Courts were created following the Violence Against Women Act of 1994 and the increased visibility of domestic assault issues that resulted from automatic arrests that it required. Unique to this type of court is its charge to address victims’ needs as well as to treat the perpetrator’s issues. Those accused of domestic abuse who agree to enter this court may do so as a condition to get a restraining order removed.

Business courts are less frequently found than other problem-solving courts. These are designed to enable businesses an expedited judicial process rather than waiting in lengthy queues to get on a docket. They also streamline the process by picking judges with specialized knowledge of business issues that can be very complex.

Truancy courts aim at keeping juveniles in the education system through a carrot and stick approach. However, critics assail the programs as selective because they rely on a haphazard reporting system that may leave parents out of the loop.

Sex Trafficking Court seeks to assist victims of pay-for-sex schemes that may include teenaged runaways, prostitution, and violence.

Community Courts may have limited lifespans as they are created to deal with crime in a specific area, typically a cyclical event. These courts are a regional forum for addressing a variety of ills, from prostitution and drug dealing with business concerns.