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Explore a Different Criminal Justice Approach: Problem-Solving Courts – Raise the Voices

Written by Starlene Parris & Kasey Michaud

Approximately 15% of all people living in state prisons experience a serious mental illness. What happens to these people? They are left to rot in prison, fighting against their own minds and a broken system they don’t fully understand.

If you are familiar with the basics of the criminal justice system, you are probably aware that once convicted individuals are sent to prison by a court of law. However, the system is much more complicated. If crucial elements of a crime are ignored, then justice will not be served. Each case is unique and needs to be looked at through the proper lens. What if the person who has committed a crime experiences mental illness or an addiction? What happens then? This is where problem-solving courts come into play. 

What are Problem Solving Courts?

The National Institute of Justice defines problem-solving courts as “courts designed to stop crime by treating substance use disorders and other serious problems underlying criminal conduct.” According to the National Institute of Justice, this new approach, beginning in the 80s and 90s, to the justice system was created out of a need to address the “… crack cocaine epidemic [that] was overwhelming court dockets… and filling prisons with…” individuals whose drug usage remained unchanged.  Essentially, problem-solving courts were created with the intention of providing solutions to the issues individuals were facing rather than letting their issues go unresolved in prison. 

These courts challenge the logic of punitive justice that incarceration should be the default answer for all. Many individuals encounter the criminal justice system because of underlying conditions and become repeatedly involved in the system because they do not attain the proper aid. The story of a woman, Tonier Cain-Muldrow, exemplifies the ways the criminal justice system has failed to produce justice. According to this article, after 19 years of incarceration, Cain-Muldrow was finally directed towards the appropriate resources that allowed her to begin healing past trauma. Growing up in a single-parent household with a mother who abused drugs and alcohol, Cain-Muldrow began to abuse substances as well to numb the emotional pain. She eventually married, but to an abusive man. Her addiction to cocaine to relieve the pain caused by her abusive marriage was the beginning of her involvement in the criminal justice system. She only began to be freed of the system when she was enrolled in a treatment program that focused on the trauma she incurred instead of focusing on her addiction. There are many others with similar stories as Cain-Muldrow. The need for increased problem solving is evident. If underlying conditions continued to be overlooked, then the system that claims to do justice is counter-productively perpetuating injustice. 

What are the Different Types of Problem Solving Courts? 

The National Center for State Courts identifies 9 different kinds of problem-solving courts: community courts, drug courts, fathering courts, homeless courts, human trafficking courts, mental health courts, truancy courts, veterans courts, and reentry courts. These courts each focus on specific problems and provide more humanitarian alternatives to incarceration. 

Two of the more prominent types of problem solving courts are mental health courts and drug courts. Mental health courts currently operate in 38 states while there are drug courts in all 50 states. Our organization, Raise the Voices, was given the opportunity to speak with a criminal justice official who works in the mental health courts in Norfolk, Virginia. In their jurisdiction, the mental health court acts as a resolution court for misdemeanor crimes. Additionally, individuals cannot have a substance abuse issue if they are to participate in the mental health court. In situations where people living with mental illness also have a substance abuse issue, they will likely be referred to the drug courts instead. While participants receive treatment their case is reviewed every 2 weeks. Upon completion of the program the participants either are freed from the system or their case is sent back to the regular docket for trial. This all of course depends on the person, but many have been freed from the system. 

Drug Courts, on the other hand, handle misdemeanors pertaining to substance abuse. Raise the Voices’ own reporter, Starlene Parris was able to have an interview with someone who works in a drug court. In the drug courts of Monroe County, Indiana the cases brought to the drug courts are pre sentencing. This means the individual has become eligible for the program and a decision is made by the treatment court team. If they are accepted into the program, the individual undergoes a change of plea hearing, then they are sentenced. An essential part of this program is the requirement that participants must have a job and also sustain a year of sobriety. Upon completion of the program the case is dismissed, however if the person fails to complete the program then they can be sentenced to time in prison. 

The Benefits?

Although each jurisdiction runs their problem solving courts differently, the benefits are relatively similar. An initial benefit of these programs is that people no longer have to stay in jail waiting for treatment. It is a step in eliminating clients in the criminal system who should not be there. Many who eventually graduate from these programs have had prior interaction with the criminal system. There is an opportunity to get people out of the system for good since the issues causing them to commit offenses in the first place will be addressed. 

Additionally, problem solving courts are more cost effective than the traditional incarceration system. “Drug Courts produce an average of $2.21 in direct

benefits to the criminal justice system for every $1.00 invested — a 221% return on investment (Bhati et al., 2008).” (National Association of Drug Court Professionals) These courts lessen the economic toll it takes to run regular prisons and jails with estimates reporting that it costs $80billion each year to run American Prisons and jails. The reason the cost is so high might have something to do with prisons being drastically overfilled and traditional courts being backed up on cases. People who can’t afford bail will be sitting in jail for months to even years waiting for their trial. 

The Problem?

These courts offer such important and life-changing benefits yet, and yet they are lacking in availability. There aren’t even mental health courts in all 50 states. As a result, people with severe mental disabilities are ending up in regular prisons where they will never receive the help they need, and therefore, be more likely to return to prison once they serve their sentence. It is distressing that there are more mentally ill people in state prisons and jails than there are in state mental hospitals. Not only will these prisoners not receive the help they need, but they will also pose a high risk to themselves and others.

While there may be drug courts in every state, that does not mean that everyone has equal access to them. Drug courts in rural areas are often underfunded and unable to provide adequate treatment for individuals. One of our attorney contacts  working in the Virginia mental health courts highlighted this issue as well. Money should be allocated and invested in mental health treatment. With additional funding, problem-solving courts will be able to expand their dockets. More people can receive assistance while less people get trapped in the criminal justice system. Furthermore, not all drug courts have access to the same treatment options or medications. A contributor to this issue as well falls to prosecutors. If a local prosecutor does not desire problem-solving courts in their area, then those courts will not be established. Essentially, people from all over the country are receiving differential treatment because of the decisions made by their prosecutor. The issue of establishing problem-solving courts appears to be one that should be addressed systemically.  

Next Steps 

Now that the specifics and benefits of problem-solving courts have been explained, one question may remain. What can be done with this information? As previously stated, prosecutors have the power to establish problem-solving courts. They have discretion over filling jails and prisons with people who experience mental illness and addiction. Civic engagement is likely the best next step to take. Residents should contact their local representatives and express an interest in having these courts in their district. If problem-solving courts already exist, residents should call for more investment in mental health and drug recovery programs. Additionally, when local elections come around people should take the time to review the stances and proposals of those running for office. Voting representatives in office that support investing in the community is one of the best ways citizens can influence policy. 86 of the 99 state legislative chambers are having elections this year so it is imperative that you vote!

Previous legislation and guides for problem-solving courts are below. These can be important pieces of information to forward to representatives. 

The twelve states without mental health courts are: Arkansas, Delaware, Mississippi, Montana, Nebraska, New Jersey, North Dakota, Rhode Island, South Dakota, Vermont, Wisconsin, and Wyoming. All other states have statutes allowing for the creation and funding of mental health courts. Some states allow for citizens to propose statutes via petitions but, most states reserve that power for the lawmakers. So the best option, as mentioned prior, would be to vote in officials who care about helping their community.


Florida Statute 394.47892 for mental health court programs 

Nebraska Legislature expands statute to include mental health courts

NCSC- More branches of problem solving courts

Additional information on problem solving courts

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