Issue: Specialized Courts


To cut the enormous costs and high number of prisoners, states are more and more turning to specialized courts.

“We’re looking at alternatives which engage inmates in programs that help them and essentially put them at successful rehabilitation and re-entry,” said Peter Cutler, a spokesman for the New York State Department of Corrections.

That’s the goal of specialized courts — one alternative to traditional court sentencing and incarceration. The push toward “problem-solving courts” remains controversial. It is geared toward non-violent offenders, many of them convicted of drug-related crimes.

Specialized courts sentence offenders in their particular problem-solving specialty. Those specialties include drugs, veterans, youth, mental health and community. The court determines whether offenders should be sentenced to state prisons, county jail, community supervision, treatment programs or some combination of any of those.

New York state has been touted as something of a model for specialized courts at work.

Consider the most recent statistics collected by the federal Bureau of Justice Statistics, New York State’s Department of Corrections, and New York State Unified Court System:

  •  New York reports having nearly 300 specialized courts.The 5th Judicial District, which includes Syracuse, has specialized courts for drug treatment, community and domestic violence.
  •  Since 1999, the New York prison population has decreased by 22 percent, or about 15,000 prisoners. The state credits specialized courts for much of that decrease.
  • In New York, specialized courts get part of the credit for reducing the proportion of drug-related offenders in prison.
  • In New York prisons, for example, drug-related offenders make up 15.4 percent of the population. Most — 62.9 percent — of the offenders are imprisoned for violent offenses.
  • Nationally, 17.8 percent of state prisoners are in prison for drug-related offenses, and 53.2 percent of offenders have committed violent crimes. In federal prisons, over half of offenders are incarcerated for drug-related offenses.

In New York, department policy and state legislature “have combined to put New York at the forefront” of using specialized courts to reduce prison populations, said Cutler, of the state’s corrections department.

“When anybody comes into our system, they go into a pretty rigorous evaluation,” Cutler said. “Based on that process, there’s a protocol that’s established to add specific programs to treat the issues that a person might have.” Those options include drug rehabilitation, education, vocational training, mental health care and community re-entry programs.

The high cost of prisons is one reason states are increasingly turning to problem-solving courts.

Corrections are a large portion of state budgets. That’s partly because prison populations are big: 1.4 million prisoners in state prisons across the country, or 1 inmate per every 200 residents. Prison populations are also aging and medical costs for prisoners are a burden on state budgets. Long sentences keep prisoners locked up for longer: The average minimum sentence in New York is almost nine years. And laws that set sentencing for certain offenders and violations restrict judges from exercising some freedom in sentencing.

Those costs have forced federal, state and local governments to reconsider what they do with prisoners.

“The recession has really opened policy makers’ minds to alternatives to incarceration,” said Ram Subramanian, of the Vera Institute of Justice’s Center on Sentencing and Corrections, a national research and policy organization. “Because of budgetary and fiscal restraints, state governments and agencies are forced to do more with less.”

On the federal level, some politicians have supported problem-solving courts. In April, for example, President Barack Obama announced a major shift in the federal policy toward non-violent drug offenders. Now, the goal is to divert them into treatment instead of incarceration.

A number of bills promoting treatment over incarceration have come up in the House of Representatives and the Senate. One example is the Drug Court Reauthorization Act, introduced by Democratic Rep. Sheila Jackson of Texas. “Studies have concluded that drug courts significantly reduce crime by as much as 35 percent more than other sentencing options,” the bill says. It would provide federal funding to local treatment courts that used alternative sentencing to prisons for drug offenders.

Recent studies by sociologists and criminologists have shown specialized courts to be effective. States officials and other experts turn to “recidivism rates” — the rate at which released prisoners repeat offenses — to measure these programs’ success. From 2002 to 2007, the most recent data available, New York’s recidivism has remained unchanged. About 40 percent of released prisoners returned to prison after three years.

Michael Rushford, president of the Criminal Justice Legal Foundation, opposes the movement toward specialized courts. His California-based organization is dedicated to justice issues and promotes punishment — particularly incarceration — as the best deterrent against crime.

“States are washing their hands of a fundamental obligation that they have of protecting the public,” said Rushford.

Supporters of specialized courts, he said, are misguided in both their reasons for using those courts and their reliance on the courts as a solution. Unionized prison staffs — not prisoners — drive up expenses, he said.

And he offers up a different solution: put the prisoners themselves to work at varying jobs within prison facilities, in manufacturing and in other jobs. Give them something meaningful to do, Rushford said, and keep them out of communities to commit more crimes.

Problem-solving courts are “reduced penalties,” Rushford said. He urges states to continue incarceration.

“There needs to be a ladder of consequences,” Rushford said. “When you don’t have a clear consequence, people are not deterred.”

(Julie McMahon is a graduate student in magazine, newspaper and online journalism.)


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