The Case For Experimental Problem-Solving Courts: Rehabilitation Through Behavioral Modification Programs


Offenders leaving our criminal justice system should return as productive society members. To facilitate this goal, we should encourage and expand problem-solving courts as an alternative to traditional courts. Unlike traditional courts, problem-solving courts resolve the underlying causes of crime. Problem-solving courts are rehabilitative courts established to deal with specific problems, often involving individuals who need social, mental health, or substance abuse treatment services. Ultimately, problem-solving courts help offenders return to society as productive community members. These courts can most effectively do so by identifying which methods are most effective in lowering the recidivism rate and replicating those practices.

Problem-solving courts, which began to appear in the 1990s,1 resolve the underlying criminal causes by rehabilitating non-serious, nonviolent offenders through drug or mental health treatment.2 Over 2,500 problem-solving courts now operate nationwide.3 In problem-solving courts, judges use their authority to motivate individuals to accept needed services and to monitor their compliance and progress, with the goal of preventing recidivism.4 Problem-solving courts provide judges with wide discretion to fashion individual remedies that generally comport with a rehabilitative ideal.5 Defendants may voluntarily choose between a court program and incarceration time. The court place serious demands on defendants through intensive court and community supervision,6 but only when defendants agree to participate in the problem-solving court setting. Problem-solving courts have effectively decreased recidivism rates through this process and should continue to do so.


Because most commentary about problem-solving courts focuses on drug courts, DWI courts, juvenile courts, and veterans’ courts, this Article will focus on lesser-known problem-solving courts. This Article will discuss community courts, homeless courts, mental health courts, teen courts, domestic violence courts, prostitution courts, and reentry courts. Community courts address low-level public order offenses and the underlying quality-of-life problems within specific neighborhoods. Homeless courts help indigent individuals resolve outstanding misdemeanor offenses and warrants through completing program services, counseling, and community service hours. Mental health courts address the mentally ill offenders in the criminal justice system that do not pose a public safety risk through offering community mental health treatment and other support services. Teen courts work with delinquent youths that are charged with minor law violations. Domestic violence courts treat batterers through substance abuse treatment, mental health services, or parenting classes. Prostitution courts offer diversion programs that include therapy, counseling, and other resources to help prostitutes end the prostitution cycle. Reentry courts help inmates find housing, treatment, counseling, job training, and other relevant support services so that they can reintegrate into society. All of these courts deal with specific problems that help offenders return to society as productive community members.

A. Community Court

Community courts address quality-of-life problems within specific neighborhoods by having offenders restore the community that they injured; for example, a person who commits a graffiti violation would clean up graffiti in their neighborhood. Community courts address public order offenses, which detract from citizens’ rights to enjoy and participate in everyday neighborhood activities.7 The 40 community courts in the United States focus on low-level infractions.8 They include small drug sales, auto break-ins,9 graffiti, shoplifting, sleeping on streets, aggressive panhandling, and public urination offenses.10 Some community courts also include vehicle theft and felony drug offenses.11

Community courts focus on those who are most likely to reoffend and who have the greatest impact on public safety.12 Community court judges send defendants to drug treatment, shelter, and social services instead of handing down fines and jail time.13 The defendants must go to court one to five times a week, depending on the offense.14 People who commit minor, nonviolent felonies can enroll in a drug addiction, alcoholism, or mental illness program for help with the problem that landed them in court.15

In the traditional court system, courts resolved low-level offenses with a short jail period or fines.16 Offenders faced few repercussions and learned that disorderly behavior was appropriate in that community and committed the same crimes again.17 In community courts, however, offenders perform community service in the neighborhoods where they broke the law.18 The offenders remove graffiti and clean subway stations to restore the community they injured.19

An evaluation of Washington D.C.’s community court showed that defendants who successfully completed diversion programs from 2007 to 2009 were half as likely to reoffend as similar defendants in a traditional court.20 Additionally, in four years, San Francisco’s Community Justice Court has heard over 7,800 cases and 5,000 defendants, and 75% of defendants made their court appointments.21

B. Homeless Court

Homeless courts help participants resolve outstanding misdemeanor offenses and warrants through completing program services, counseling and community service hours.22 They ease court case-processing backlogs and reduce poverty23 while reintegrating these indigent individuals back into society.24 Although some defendants in community courts can also qualify for homeless court, the focus in homeless courts is specifically on indigent defendants.

Higher unemployment rates across the country in the last few years25 have hurt over 3.5 million homeless Americans.26 Many local governments criminalize activities associated with homelessness, such as sleeping in public, sitting, and begging for money.27 Forty-nine percent of homeless people have spent five or more days in a jail; a homeless person can spend a few days in jail because he or she cannot post a $100 bond on a traffic ticket.28 Indigent individuals may also have committed misdemeanor offenses such as traffic violations, drinking in public, and loitering.29 These outstanding misdemeanor offenses and warrants can also serve as significant barriers30 to obtaining a job, housing, a driver’s license, a rental agreement, and other important living needs.

For example, in Tucson City Court’s Homeless Court Program (HCP),31 a homeless shelter or service agency first recommends the indigent person for the program.32 If the person is also in residential or active treatment for at least 60 days, he or she may sign up for the HCP.33 HCP participants complete significant program activities hours through volunteer work, drug rehabilitation, employment training classes, and counseling, which replace fines, public work service, and custody.34 Participants who complete all the requirements have their misdemeanor convictions expunged.35

C. Mental Health Court

Mental health courts address jail overcrowding and the disproportionate number of mentally ill offenders in the criminal justice system while still holding the offenders accountable.36 Mental health courts supervise and attend to mentally ill offenders’ psychiatric disorders and mental health service needs through offering community mental health treatment and other support services in order to reduce the recidivism rate.37 Mental health court judges only accept defendants who can demonstrate that their mental illnesses led to their involvement in the criminal justice system and do not pose a public safety risk.38 Nationally, more than 150 mental health courts operate today.39

If accepted, the offender can choose to not participate in the program.40 The Tucson City Court’s Mental Health Division typically provides offenders in-patient treatment for a few months and a 15-day jail sentence instead of a 6-month jail sentence.41 Defendants who fail to follow the treatment requirements, which include weekly court appearances, may have to return to jail for the remainder of their six-month sentence.42

Ninety-five percent of participants in mental health courts nationwide comply with their treatment plans, largely because they receive personal attention in court and in counseling.43 At the Tucson City Court, 90% of defendants who enter the program complete their mental health treatment plan and avoid additional criminal charges.44

D. Teen Court

As of 2001, 800 teen courts operate in 15 states essentially as juvenile diversion programs.45 Teen courts typically take 12- to 15-year-old delinquent youths who are first-time offenders charged with nonviolent offenses such as vandalism or stealing.46 Fellow youths typically run the courtroom as judges, prosecuting attorneys, defense lawyers, jurors, bailiffs, and clerks after receiving about 20 legal training hours.47 Teen courts have a big impact on delinquent teenagers because they are run by peers who are similar in age to them.

Teen courts handle relatively minor law violations like shoplifting, vandalism, disorderly conduct, minor assaults, and alcohol possession.48 Under the juvenile court system, young people arrested for the first time for a minor offense typically only get a warning letter.49 Under the teen court system, however, they face mandatory sanctions or penalties that are relevant to their crime, such as repairing vandalized property for vandalism, or replacing stolen goods for theft, while still writing apology letters to their victims and parents.50 For example, a teenager who is arrested for stealing would go to a workshop designed for children who are caught stealing.

Although police, courts, or juvenile probation agencies initially refer defendants, participation in teen court is voluntary.51 Ninety percent of teen court programs require the defendants to admit their guilt to participate.52 The teen court then considers mitigating or aggravating circumstances and imposes a sentence, using the guidance and oversight of the adult judge if the jurisdiction has one.53

In Anchorage Youth Court, youth volunteers must pass a written “bar exam” which focuses on the juvenile justice system, youth court procedures, courtroom roles, and sentencing options.54 However, adults administer traditional program management functions, and, in some programs, supervise the courtroom and community service placements, provide training, and question witnesses.53

Some youth courts, like the Anchorage Youth Court, handle virtually every first-time juvenile offender charged with a nonserious offense, significantly reducing juvenile judges’ workload.56 Law enforcement agencies, juvenile probation, prosecutor’s offices, or other traditional juvenile justice system agencies administer or house the vast majority of teen courts.57

The Urban Institute investigated teen courts in Alaska, Arizona, Maryland and Missouri and found the recidivism rate significantly lower among youth handled in teen court in Alaska and Missouri and slightly lower in Arizona and Maryland than in traditional juvenile court.58 Skeptics argue that teen courts encourage local officials to arrest and process very young, low-risk juvenile offenders that are least likely to recidivate.59 Law enforcement, however, is not likely to exercise its discretion in such a fashion when they are dealing with much more serious crimes.

E. Domestic Violence Court

Domestic violence (DV) courts treat batterers through substance abuse treatment, mental health services, or parenting classes.60 Twenty-nine million American women reported experiencing “severe physical violence” at the hands of a partner in their lifetime.61 With increasing awareness of domestic violence victims, over 300 DV courts have formed nationwide.62 Unlike offenses in other specialty courts, DV court offenses involve violent transgressions and frequently require additional precautions to ensure the safety of victims.63

“[B]etween 90% and 95% of couples attempt to stay together after the batterer is arrested and placed in the domestic violence specialty court system.”64 Batterers typically have underlying drug dependencies or mental health illnesses, believe that it is acceptable to subjugate women, and desire to control and dominate their partners.65

DV courts expedite the offender’s entrance into treatment.66 DV courts resolve DV cases within 58.1 days on average, while traditional courts resolve DV cases in 131.4 days.67 Four of five studies on how DV victims perceived fairness concluded that victims reported higher satisfaction levels when DV courts adjudicated their partners’ cases, as opposed to traditional court.68

Half of the country’s DV courts request assessments of the offender’s drug and alcohol dependence, mental health issues, victimization history, background characteristics, risk of repeat violence, and needs for social services.69 DV courts monitor offenders through program reports and penalize offenders for noncompliance through verbal admonishment, immediate returns to court, increased court appearances, revoked or amended probation, or jail time.70

Mae C. Quinn, a University of Tennessee law professor, criticizes DV courts for often exacerbating victims’ problems by creating a lack of financial and emotional support from their incarcerated partners.71 At the same time, court-mandated batterer intervention programs for offenders have little impact on reoffending.72

Nonetheless, an Urban Institute Justice Police Center study concluded that every victim with a case pending in Brooklyn’s DV court received extensive services, such as housing, job training, and safety planning.73 The percentage of domestic violence victims assigned to a victim advocate increased from 55% to 100%.74 As a result, victims get services and support that they otherwise would not get from the traditional court system. Furthermore, DV court cut the court’s dismissal rate in half and created more guilty pleas, saving the court system money.75

F. Prostitution Court

Prostitution courts help women arrested for prostitution leave the prostitution cycle through counseling for mental health, substance abuse, and job training.76 More women are in prison for prostitution than for any other nonviolent offense, and they serve a higher percentage of their maximum sentence than any other inmate type other than lifers.77 “Many were physically or sexually abused in their youth, addicted to drugs or turned to prostitution because of homelessness.”78 Incarceration of prostitutes is costly; Philadelphia spends almost $10,000 a day housing prostitutes in jail.79

Generally, defendants may participate in a prostitution diversion program if they are charged with prostitution and have not previously been charged with a felony offense.80 Prostitution courts differ on whether prostitutes need to plead guilty to participate and whether they retain defendants in custody.81 Programs typically require a few months of therapy and counseling from social services.82

For example, in Philadelphia’s Project Dawn Court, social workers determine what resources the participants need after court personnel screen participants for drugs and alcohol.83 Participants must report regularly to the social worker; if the participant successfully completes the program, the court drops all charges against her.84 If a participant fails, she faces an escalating series of sanctions that can include writing an essay or listening to prostitution cases all day.85

Prosecutors only charged 25% of those who successfully completed the Prostitution Protocol Program in Hartford, Connecticut with subsequent prostitution acts, well below the national rate for those convicted of prostitution.86

G. Reentry Court

Reentry courts help prisoners find transitional housing, substance abuse treatment, mental health services, vocational training, and other relevant support services so that they can better return as productive members to society. Over “95% of prisoners are eventually released, forcing communities to absorb an influx of over 700,000 returning prisoners each year.”87 Inmates return home with the stigma of incarceration, ongoing financial demands, loss of professional work skills and social networks, and some employment restrictions.88 As a result, “individuals are most likely to reoffend within the first three months of their release from prison.”89

Over 30 state and 40 federal reentry courts90 currently serve as parole problem-solving courts nationally.91 A reentry court team made up of a parole or corrections officer, social services coordinator, and a reentry court judge first determines inmate eligibility and assesses inmate needs.92 The team finds transitional housing options, substance abuse treatment, mental health services, domestic violence and trauma counseling, vocational training, family reintegration programs, child care, or other relevant support services to assist released inmates.93


We should encourage and expand problem-solving courts as an alternative to traditional courts. Offenders leaving our criminal justice system should return as productive society members. Unlike traditional courts, problem-solving courts resolve the underlying causes of crime. Problem-solving courts reduce the recidivism rate, are more cost effective, strengthen families and communities, and are more effective than community treatment services, while still leaving the choice of participation up to offenders.

Incarceration has proven ineffective. An estimated 65% of inmates that leave prison reoffend and return to prison within three years of their release.94 In the traditional court system, “offenders, often let off for relatively minor offenses based on time served, cycle in and out of those courts while learning that there are few repercussions . . . .”95 Problem-solving courts provide treatment and services for offenders so that they are less likely to recidivate. Participants become more educated and build more job skills so that they are less likely to commit new crimes after completing the program.96

At the same time, problem-solving courts are more cost effective than traditional courts. Because participants can still earn money, they can contribute to their communities by paying taxes rather than having the government subsidize them.97 Problem-solving courts provide direct benefits, reduced foster care placements, health care utilization, and other distal cost offsets; drug courts return to the community up to $27 for every $1 invested.98 Problem-solving courts do have a higher upfront cost than probation.99 It costs significantly more, however, to house an inmate—$28,000 per year.100 As a result, problem-solving courts cost less over the long term. Although costs are not the main concern in rehabilitating offenders, this money can now be spent elsewhere.

Problem-solving courts strengthen families and communities by keeping offenders with their families and in their communities.101 Additionally, they can provide benefits to the community and repair harms suffered by victims through court-mandated community service.102

At the same time, problem-solving courts are more effective than community treatment services. Over half of addicted offenders never enroll in community treatment and another 50% drop out before receiving any community treatment or service benefits; less than 5% achieve long-term sobriety.103 The Justice Policy Institute’s Nastassia Walsh criticizes problem-solving courts for drawing attention away from improving community treatment and services while widening criminal justice involvement.104 Instead, Walsh recommends greater investment in community treatment and services, and focusing court treatment programs on those who would have gone to prison instead.105 Unlike these treatment services, however, judges in problem-solving courts can effectively impose legitimate punishments for not following the program. Furthermore, problem-solving court judges tailor program needs to each offender and have offenders report back to them on weekly progress. Because judges can punish them for not following the program and can hold offenders accountable, offenders are more likely to comply and accept needed services.

Problem-solving court critics argue that judicial discretion can be inconsistent and that judges might force their values on defendants from different backgrounds.106 They also contend that courts apply many unnecessarily harsh treatments and that courts punish any deviation from the rules.107 Some public defenders argue that courts assume that only guilty defendants accept intervention.108 The critics, however, forget that the defendants have a choice. They can choose between a court program and incarceration time.

The justice system literature offers no defined treatment strategy and does not discuss the efficacy of particular treatment options.109 Therefore, courts should commission studies to determine which methods are most effective in lowering the recidivism rate and replicate those methods. Problem-solving courts have effectively reduced the recidivism rate by experimenting with innovative intervention methods. When courts analyze outcomes based on long-term cost versus long-term benefit, they should look to scientific studies to determine which treatment strategies are most appropriate.

Furthermore, to effectively run a problem-solving court, all parties should understand the roles that they fill. The judge must be compassionate and caring while exercising his sentencing discretion. The prosecutor should support defendants’ successes. The defense attorney must hold his or her client accountable for completing the program. This community support helps offenders successfully overcome their problems so that they do not commit new offenses.


Problem-solving courts effectively combine state-sanctioned treatment within a punitive model. Problem-solving courts focus on resolving the underlying causes of crime so that offenders stop committing new crimes. Problem-solving courts should continue to focus on lowering the recidivism rate while saving our criminal justice system and protecting the community.






* Bobby Yu is a third-year law student at the University of Arizona James E. Rogers College of Law and an Articles Editor for the Arizona Journal of Environmental Law & Policy. Bobby graduated from UCLA in 2006 with Bachelor of Arts degrees in History and Economics.
1 Jaclyn Hovda, The Efficacy of Idaho’s Domestic Violence Courts: An Opportunity for the Court System to Effect Social Change, 48 IDAHO L. REV. 587, 593 (2012).
2 See Alternatives to Incarceration in a Nutshell, FAMILIES AGAINST MANDATORY MINIMUMS (Aug. 2013),
3 John A. Bozza, Benevolent Behavior Modification: Understanding the Nature and Limitations of Problem-Solving Courts, 17 WIDENER L.J. 97, 98 (2007).
4 Bruce J. Winick, Therapeutic Jurisprudence and Problem Solving Courts, 30 FORDHAM URB. L.J. 1055, 1060–61 (2003).
5 For example, New York’s Family Treatment Court has facilitated family reunions to help parents overcome their addictions. See Timothy Casey, When Good Intentions Are Not Enough: Problem-Solving Courts and the Impending Crisis of Legitimacy, 57 SMU L. REV. 1459, 1475–76 (2004).
6 See Alternatives to Incarceration in a Nutshell, supra note 2.
7 Gregory Toomey, Community Courts 101: A Quick Survey Course, 42 IDAHO L. REV. 383, 395 (2006).
8 Fenit Nirappil, Novel Courts Handle Low-Level Crimes Across U.S., Associated Press (Sept. 23, 2012),
9 C.W. Nevius, Community Justice Center Passes the Test (Jan. 10, 2013),
10 Nirappil, supra note 8.
11 Id.
12 Community/Homeless Courts, CALIFORNIA COURTS, http://www.courts. (last visited Nov. 20, 2013).
13 Nirappil, supra note 8.
14 Nevius, supra note 9.
15 Id.
16 Sudip Kundu, Privately Funded Courts and the Homeless: A Critical Look at Community Courts, J. AFFORDABLE HOUSING & COMMUNITY DEV. L., Winter 2005, at 170, 172.
17 Id. at 172–73.
18 Id.
19 Id. at 173
20 Nirappil, supra note 8.
21 Nevius, supra note 9.
22 Tucson City Court Homeless Court Program, CITY OF TUCSON, (last visited Nov. 20, 2013).
23 Id.
24 Id.
25 Stacy Lee Burns, The Future of Problem-Solving Courts: Inside the Courts and Beyond, 10 U. MD. L.J. RACE, RELIGION, GENDER & CLASS 73, 83 (2010).
26 Robert A. Stein, Paving the Way for Justice: The ABA Commission on Homelessness and Poverty Takes the Law to the Streets, ABA J., July 2005, at 63.
27 Kundu, supra note 16, at 171.
28 John J. Ammann, Addressing Quality of Life Crimes in Our Cities: Criminalization, Community Courts and Community Compassion, 44 ST. LOUIS U. L.J. 811, 813 (2000).
29 Tucson City Court Homeless Court Program, supra note 22.
30 Id.
31 I previously directed the University of Arizona’s National Lawyers Guild’s Homeless Court Clinic, sending law students to assist the pro bono public defender with the Homeless Court Program (“HCP”) proceedings at Tucson City Court every third Friday.
32 Id.
33 Id.
34 Id.
35 Id.
36 Mental Health Courts, CALIFORNIA COURTS, http://www.courts. (last visited Nov. 20, 2013); Mental Health Division, CITY OF TUCSON, (last visited Nov. 20, 2013).
37 See Kirk Kimber, Mental Health Courts – Idaho’s Best Kept Secret, 45 IDAHO L. REV. 249 (2008); Id.
38 Kimber, supra note 37, at 258–60.
39 Id. at 252.
40 Id.
41 Alternatives to Incarceration, CITY OF TUCSON,
courts/alternatives-incarceration (last visited Nov. 20, 2013).
42 Id.
43 Paul Koepp, Utah County’s Alternative Courts Changing Lives, Saving Money, DESERET NEWS (Apr. 12, 2010),
44 Alternatives to Incarceration, supra note 41.
45 Jeffrey A. Butts & Janeen Buck-Willison, URBAN INSTITUTE, (last visited Nov. 20, 2013).
46 Jeffrey A. Butts & Jennifer Ortiz, Teen Courts – Do They Work and Why?, N.Y. ST. B.J., January 2011, at 18.
47 Butts & Willison, supra note 45.
48 Id.
49 Id.
50 Id.
51 Id.
52 Id.
53 Id.
54 Id.
55 Id.
56 Id.
57 Id.
58 Butts & Willison, supra note 45, at 19.
59 Butts, supra note 46.
60 Domestic Violence Courts: Batterer Programs, NAT’L INST. OF JUSTICE, (last visited Nov. 20, 2013); Hovda, supra note 1, at 607.
61 Hovda, supra note 1, at 593.
62 Anat Maytal, Specialized Domestic Violence Courts: Are They Worth the Trouble in Massachusetts?, 18 B.U. PUB. INT. L.J. 197, 208 (2008).
63 Hovda, supra note 1, at 593.
64 Id. at 595–96.
65 Id. at 595–97.
66 Domestic Violence Courts: Batterer Programs, supra note 60, at 602.
67 Id.
68 Id.
69 Domestic Violence Courts: Offender Assessments, NAT’L INST. OF JUSTICE, (last visited Nov. 20, 2013).
70 Id.
71 Mae C. Quinn, The Modern Problem-Solving Court Movement: Domination of Discourse and Untold Stories of Criminal Justice Reform, 31 WASH. U. J.L. & POL’Y 57, 68 (2009).
72 Batterer Programs, supra note 60; Hovda, supra note 1, at 607.
73 Maytal, supra note 62, at 209–10.
74 Id.
75 Id.
76 Tara Murtha, A New Dawn: Philly Court Uses Compassion to Fight Prostitution, PHILADELPHIA WEEKLY (Aug. 3, 2010),
77 Id.
78 Serena Maria Daniels, Prostitution Court Opens in Cook County: New Program Aims to Get Women off the Street, CHICAGO TRIBUNE (Jan. 17, 2011),
79 Murtha, supra note 76.
80 Daniels, supra note 78.
81 Id.; Quintin Johnstone, The Hartford Community Court: An Experiment That Has Succeeded, 34 CONN. L. REV. 123, 137 (2001).
82 See id.
83 Murtha, supra note 76.
84 Id.
85 Id.
86 Johnstone, supra note 81.
87 Erin McGrath, Reentry Courts: Providing a Second Chance for Incarcerated Mothers and Their Children, 50 FAM. CT. REV. 113, 114 (2012).
88 Collateral Costs: Incarceration’s Effect on Economic Mobility, THE PEW CHARITABLE TRUSTS, Sept. 18, 2010,
89 McGrath, supra note 87, at 120.
90 Id. at 119.
91 Id. at 114.
92 Id. at 120.
93 Id.
94 Id. at 114.
95 Christine L. Nemacheck, Good Courts: The Case for Problem-Solving Justice, 28 JUST. SYS. J. 247 (2007) (book review).
96 Lecture with William H. Koch, Judge, Hennepin County District Court, & Peter W. Hochuli, Judge, Pima County Juvenile Court, in Tucson, Ariz. (Feb. 8, 2013).
97 Drug Courts Are the Answer, NAT’L ASSOC. OF DRUG COURT PROFESSIONALS 2 (Mar. 23, 2011),
98 Id. at 1.
99 C. West Huddleston, III et al., Painting the Current Picture: A National Report Card on Drug Courts and Other Problem-Solving Court Programs in the United States, National Drug Court Institute (May 2008), 14.
100 Alternatives to Incarceration in a Nutshell, supra note 2.
101 Id.
102 Id.
103 Drug Courts are the Answer, supra note 97.
104 Nastassia Walsh, Addicted to Courts: How a Growing Dependence on Drug Courts Impacts People and Communities, NAT’L INST. OF JUSTICE (Mar. 22, 2011),
105 Id.
106 Leslie Eaton & Leslie Kaufman, In Problem-Solving Court, Judges Turn Therapist, N.Y. TIMES (Apr. 26, 2005),
107 Id.
108 Id.
109 Bozza, supra note 3, at 108.

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