The Problem with Problem-solving Courts

The Black Box Remains Unopened after Thirty Years

Authored by: Eileen M. Ahlin , Anne S. Douds

Handbook on Sentencing Policies and Practices in the 21st Century

Print publication date:  June  2019
Online publication date:  June  2019

Print ISBN: 9780367136499
eBook ISBN: 9780429027765
Adobe ISBN:


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The year 2019 marks the 30-year anniversary of the problem-solving court movement. The first drug court opened in 1989 in Miami, Florida, to address the revolving door of substance use and attendant crime among offenders in the criminal justice system. Since that time, specialty courts have proliferated premised on the problem-solving court model that targets different populations of offenders (e.g., reentrants, veterans, sex trade workers) or different kinds of issues (e.g., mental health, domestic violence, driving under the influence). Despite empirical and anecdotal evidence that many of these courts “work” and provide benefits to participants, such as reduced recidivism, some scholars argue that the problem-solving court movement grew from ideology rather than evidence. This chapter reflects on the history and development of the problem-solving court model, including the socio-political climate in which it began. Next, it proposes a theoretical framework and details theories commonly applied to problem-solving courts: therapeutic jurisprudence, deterrence, rehabilitation, procedural justice, and restorative justice. The chapter concludes with a call for research to test the post-hoc theories applied to problem-solving courts and evaluation to assess whether these individualized courts are serving clients, the court, and communities.

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