Evidence shows that specialty courts are successful, Kelly claims

By Frank Weir

Legal News

The verdict is in and there is increasing empirical evidence that specialty courts prevent recidivism and save tax dollars.

So says Michigan's Chief Justice Marilyn Kelly at a joint meeting of the WCBA's juvenile law and criminal law sections last Friday in Ann Arbor.

"There has been an explosion of specialty courts across the country," Kelly began. "The first were local in focus and were developed by trial and error and, as a result, they lacked underlying jurisprudence, availability of federal funds and offered only anecdotal evidence of their success."

That left initial efforts "open to criticism about their status and effectiveness."

Kelly noted that specialty courts have in common a focus on "litigants' underlying social, medical and psychological problems that land them in court over and over again in a never ending cycle.

"The problem-solving approach of specialty courts contrasts with the traditional adversarial model where the focus is on guilt and punishment," she said.

"The fact is we now have 88 drug courts in Michigan and they show how wrong the early prognosticators were. It took time to establish a rule-based framework and it wasn't until 2004 when our state legislature defined drug courts and required 10 key points to define them that had been promulgated by a national drug court association."

Kelly said that the concept is expanding to other areas including mental health courts, of which there are eight in Michigan, and even three "veteran's courts" in Oakland, Ingham and Ionia counties.

She added that federal funding for Michigan's mental health courts has been assured through 2012 thanks to the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA).

"Although we are still playing catch-up in the area of outcome effectiveness, recent studies show that drug courts do reduce recidivism and save taxpayer dollars.

"In 2006, a study in Berrien and Kalamazoo counties revealed that drug courts there realized savings of nearly a million over two years. In addition, the study looked at recidivism rates for two years post program and found that only 4 percent of successful graduates were rearrested, while that figure was 26 percent for those who dropped out of the program. That compares to a 50 percent figure for those who never participated in the drug court program.

"In Kalamazoo County, 14 percent of graduates were rearrested, 38 percent for drop outs compared to 52 percent overall.

"Clearly, specialty courts are here to stay especially since so much crime is related to drug use. Moreover, as Michigan and other states try to control continued increases in incarceration rates, drug courts offer a less expensive model.

"In 2008, one in every 15 discretionary dollars in Michigan, amounting to $1.28 billion, was spent on those who were in some form of correctional control.

"Now that we are facing the worst fiscal crisis in a generation, common sense tells us that we are far better off to utilize services for non-violent offenders that help them avoid landing in trouble again.

"We need to be more smart on crime than tough on crime. The right way to do it is to demand treatment for those with addictions."

Kelly listed three issues for consideration as specialty courts go forward including:

--How can we mainstream the specialty court approach given that current specialty courts only serve 5 percent of the population. How can courts broaden the approach for others who need substance abuse treatment?

--How can we continue to develop standards and peer accreditation to ensure that programs really do operate as specialty courts and how can we accomplish that without sacrificing flexibility, a hallmark of specialty courts?

--What about the judicial role in specialty courts? Does a judge lose his or her status as an impartial arbiter when participating in a specialty court? Do specialty courts require judges to be specialized? Is legal training even a necessity? Could someone trained in social work do just as well?

Published: Thu, Dec 17, 2009