Specialty Courts

Funneling Offenders with Special Needs Out of the Criminal Justice System

Authored by: Cassandra A. Atkin-Plunk , Lincoln B. Sloas

Routledge Handbook on Offenders with Special Needs

Print publication date:  May  2018
Online publication date:  May  2018

Print ISBN: 9781138648180
eBook ISBN: 9781315626574
Adobe ISBN:




Nevada Supreme Court Justice Michael Douglas notes that “specialty courts are most successful when all of the players in the system work together—district attorneys, defense attorneys, judges, treatment providers, and social service providers.”

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Specialty Courts

Nevada Supreme Court Justice Michael Douglas notes that “specialty courts are most successful when all of the players in the system work together—district attorneys, defense attorneys, judges, treatment providers, and social service providers.”

—(Quast, Mullins, & Kobak-McKown, 2016, para. 20)


It is well known that the United States has experienced a substantial increase in the correctional population over the past four decades and that approximately two-thirds of offenders are rearrested within three years of release from prison (Durose, Cooper, & Snyder, 2014). The increase in the correctional population, high recidivism rates, and unique needs of those involved in the criminal justice system has led correctional administrators, policy makers, and researchers to devise alternatives to incarceration that help reduce prison crowding, are resource efficient, and provide treatment services to offenders that may not otherwise be available in an incarcerative setting (Petersilia, Lurigio, & Byrne, 1992). Thus, in the past 30 years, substantial and sustained changes have been made to the way in which the American criminal justice system punishes certain groups of offenders, including offenders with substance abuse issues, mental health problems, and those who have served in the military (Berman & Feinblatt, 2001).

Drawing on various punishment philosophies, but with an overarching goal of holding offenders accountable and providing rehabilitation through effective treatment, specialty courts (also known as problem-solving courts) 1 were designed to provide an alternative to incarceration for specific groups of offenders. Problem-solving courts differ from traditional courts in that they do not simply adjudicate and sentence but also seek to change future behavior and increase community safety through addressing the distinct needs of offenders who are involved in such courts (Berman & Feinblatt, 2001). For example, drug courts seek to reduce drug use of substance-abusing offenders, mental health courts seek to provide mental health treatment to the mentally ill who are involved in the criminal justice system, and veterans’ courts seek to address issues stemming from being deployed to a combat or warzone (e.g., posttraumatic stress disorder and drug use). While each problem-solving court addresses different important issues, all have a desire to improve results for victims, offenders, and communities (Berman & Feinblatt, 2001).

In 1997, in response to the growing number of drug courts across the United States, the Bureau of Justice Assistance (BJA, 2004), in collaboration with the National Association for Drug Court Professionals, outlined 10 key components of drug courts. These components address all aspects of the specialty court model, including the integration of treatment services in a justice system setting, the use of a nonadversarial approach to handling cases and protecting participants’ due process rights, early identification and enrollment of participants, monitoring progress through treatment, responding to clients’ compliance with court mandates, continued interaction between court participants and judges, program evaluation, interdisciplinary education, and the development of partnerships with community-based organizations (BJA, 2004). Although developed with drug courts in mind, these key components have been adapted by other specialty courts, such as mental health courts and domestic violence courts, which seek to apply the same principles and practices as drug courts (Huddleston & Marlowe, 2011).

The following sections examine three unique problem-solving courts: drug courts, mental health courts, and veterans’ treatment courts. Each section begins with an examination of the need for individualized treatment for the offenders of the specific court, a brief history of the development of the specific court, and a review of the research surrounding the effectiveness of each court. Following this is a section on other types of problem-solving courts in existence throughout the United States (e.g., homeless, community, domestic violence, and reentry courts).

Drug Treatment Courts

Forming in 1989 in Miami, Florida, drug courts are a type of voluntary diversionary program that seek to address substance-abusing individuals’ needs rather than using punishment practices such as incarceration (Lawrence, 1991). This type of approach is beneficial for substance-abusing offenders for two reasons. First, by diverting them away from jail or prison, drug courts can be used to reduce societal labels or stigmas while addressing the specific needs of substance-abusing offenders. Second, which is often a unique aspect of drug courts, is the dropping of charges if program participants successfully complete (or graduate from) the drug court program (Lawrence, 1991).

Need for Drug Treatment Courts

The 2013 National Survey on Drug Use and Health (NSDUH) reports that 24.6 million Americans aged 12 and older were illicit drug users in the past month (e.g., marijuana, cocaine, and heroin), 136.9 million were consumers of alcohol, and 66.9 million used tobacco products. Nearly 21.6 million were classified as being substance dependent or abusers, where the use of illicit substances and alcohol is a problem interfering with routine life and requiring treatment to address the problem behaviors. Only 2.5 million individuals, however, participated in treatment services, which means, even though substance abuse disorders affect 21.6 million Americans, only 10% are engaged in treatment services. An understanding of why individuals do not seek assistance for their substance abuse problem or why they do not fully benefit from treatment is an understudied area (Green-Hennessy, 2002). This problem holds true for those individuals who are a part of the criminal justice system.

Of particular concern is the growing number of justice-involved individuals who experience substance abuse issues. For example, Belenko and Peugh (2005) suggest upwards of 75% of individuals who come into contact with the criminal justice system have substance abuse issues. Moreover, these individuals tend to experience other issues as well, including mental health problems (Belenko, Lang, & O’Connor, 2003; James & Glaze, 2006; National Institute of Mental Health, 2008; Teplin et al., 2006). Recently, alternatives to incarceration, such as drug courts, have been gaining traction to respond to individuals with substance abuse issues.

Development of Drug Treatment Courts

During the 1980s, the United States proclaimed a “War on Drugs” where harsher penalties were enforced on individuals for drug-related offenses (Wolfe et al., 2004). As a result, incarceration rates began to rise, with the hopes that spending time in jail or prison would deter individuals from future drug-related offenses. In light of such efforts, those affected the most by such policies were individuals with substance abuse addictions (Tyuse & Linhorst, 2005). By spending time in jail or prison, these individuals, once released, experienced an increased rate of recidivism. This occurred for two reasons: (1) the lack of available treatment opportunities while incarcerated; and (2) the stigmatization associated with being a felon, which, in turn limited many opportunities, including employment and housing. Thus, policies on incarceration of individuals with substance abuse issues have produced, if anything, a criminogenic rather than a deterrent effect (Bales & Piquero, 2012; Spohn, Piper, Martin, & Frenzel, 2001).

Specialty courts, such as drug courts, operate under a concept referred to as therapeutic jurisprudence (TJ), which was first developed by Winick (1999) and Wexler (1998). The concept of TJ adheres to the notion that, rather than strictly applying punishment to individuals (e.g., incarceration), the etiology of individuals’ substance abuse should be identified and treated (Schneider, 2008). This is similar to some of the 10 key components discussed previously. In drug courts, team members including judges, attorneys, case managers, and the drug court participant work together to develop a treatment modality to diminish both substance abuse and the likelihood of recidivism (Wolfer, 2006). Moreover, research suggests that participants enrolled in drug courts tend to perceive being treated with fairness and respect by judges (Atkin-Plunk & Armstrong, in press). The characteristics of drug courts are somewhat different than what is often demonstrated in traditional criminal courts.

On average, 80–120 individuals participate in each drug court across the United States annually (Bhati, Roman & Chalfin, 2008; Marchand, Waller, & Carey, 2006). Treatment itself does not often occur in the drug court but rather in community-based agencies. These can include both outpatient treatment and inpatient treatment depending on the needs of the individual (Granfield, Eby, & Brewster, 1998; Rempel & Destefano, 2001). One aspect of drug court that is relevant to participants is the use of urine drug screening. The requirements for urine drug screening will vary by participant but decrease as participants are compliant with their conditions and progress through the program (Gottfredson & Exum, 2002; Gottfredson, Najaka, & Kearley, 2003). It is important to note that although drug court’s primary focus is to reduce substance abuse and recidivism of its participants, it also does much more. For example, drug court team members can request participants to access services for vocational training and adult education (Peters & Murrin, 2000). When first entering the program, participants will have more frequent contact with the judge to discuss their progress in the program (e.g., compliance with treatment, sanctions/rewards, and if the participant is on track to graduate). As a participant moves through the program, these contacts will become less frequent (Carey, Crumpton, Finigan, & Waller, 2005). Besides the judge, drug court participants will also have frequent contact with other team members including the treatment coordinator (Barton, 2008), district attorney (Porter, 2002), public defender, and corrections officials such as probation officers (Carey et al., 2005).

As mentioned previously, drug courts use TJ as a way to meet the needs of participants coming into the program. Furthermore, a combination of rewards and sanctions are used to monitor individuals’ progress while in the program. Drug court participants are rewarded for complying with court mandates and are sanctioned for noncompliance. Rewards can range from verbal praises from the judge (Portillo, Rudes, Viglione, & Nelson, 2013) to tokens, such as gift cards and reducing the amount of urine screenings required (Carey & Marchand, 2005). Sanctions can range from having the drug court participant partake in community service to spending a few days in jail ( Carey et al., 2005; Harrell & Roman, 2001). Although drug courts appear to have value as an alternative to incarceration, it is important to discuss their effectiveness.

Do Drug Treatment Courts Work?

Three important outcomes to discern the effectiveness of drug courts are reducing recidivism, program completion (i.e., graduation), and reducing substance abuse. Peters and Murrin (2000) used a case-controlled match research design to assess the effectiveness of two drug treatment court programs for graduates, nongraduates, and traditional probation supervision individuals. Peters and Murrin (2000) found that both graduates and nongraduates had lower rates of rearrest compared to traditional supervision individuals, with graduates experiencing lower rates of substance abuse compared to both.

In a meta-analysis of drug courts, Wilson, Mitchell, and MacKenzie (2006) discovered drug courts reduced future offending for clients going through the program compared to those going through other correctional programs. In particular, they found that courts that used pre-plea or post-plea models were most effective compared to traditional correctional strategies. Mitchell, Wilson, Eggers, and MacKenzie (2012) supported this general finding, particularly among adult and driving while intoxicated (DWI) drug courts, but they also found that courts using either expungement or dismissal of charges greatly reduced drug recidivism. Recently, Rossman et al. (2011) conducted a multisite quasi-experimental design to examine the efficacy of drug courts as compared to control sites. Examining multiple outcome measures, the authors found that drug courts produced a significant impact in reducing both recidivism and substance use for clients. Additional benefits were detected for psychosocial outcomes, including employment and education, as well as long-term impacts including reducing substance use and arrests once the client had been out of drug court.

Other factors that have been shown to impact drug court completion include race (Dannerbeck, Harris, Sundet, & Lloyd, 2006), untreated mental illness (Webster, Rosen, Krietemeyer, Mateyoke-Scrivner, Staton-Tindall, & Leukefeld, 2006), and having a key drug court team member (i.e., the judge) take on a leadership role for participants (Portillo et al., 2013). For example, Vito and Tewks-bury (1998) found when drug court was ran by a black male, black male participants tended to do better, in terms of graduation, compared to their white male counterparts. Webster et al. (2006) note that individuals with mental health issues such as depression experience decreased rates of drug court program completion. Lastly, building a rapport with drug court participants during their duration in the program has been shown to lead to higher rates of completion. For instance, Goldkamp, White, and Robinson (2001) discuss how one drug court produced a 70% completion rate when one judge was on the bench for nearly a decade. Most of the studies discussed to this point comprise an array of quasi-experimental designs which are not considered as rigorous as experimental research, which also lends its support to the effectiveness of drug courts.

Randomized controlled trials (RCTs) are considered to be the gold standard of research designs (Weisburd, Lum, & Petrosino, 2001). With this being said, the research related to drug courts using RCTs is quite promising. Gottfredson and Exum (2002) randomly assigned 235 individuals to either a drug court or nondrug court treatment setting. After a one-year follow-up, Gottfredson and Exum (2002) found almost half of the drug court participants (50%) were arrested for new crimes in comparison to two-thirds of nondrug court participants (66%) who were arrested for new crimes. Finally, for cases that were actually heard in court, 32% of drug court participants were rearrested versus 57% of nondrug court participants.

Deschenes, Turner and Greenwood (1995) conducted an RCT of the Maricopa County, Arizona, drug court program on a sample of probationers convicted of drug possession (n = 630). Probationers were randomly assigned to either a drug court or supervision as usual for a one-year time period. Although significant differences were not detected between the two groups in terms of new arrests, drug court participants had fewer technical violations and drug charges. Finally, drug court participants completed the program at a rate of 40%. Along with drug courts, there is a significant amount of literature that examines mental health courts—another type of specialty court.

Mental Health Treatment Courts

The first mental health treatment court opened its doors in Broward County, Florida, in 1997 (Ross-man et al., 2012). Today there are over 300 mental health treatment courts that operate annually in the United States (Honegger, 2015). The primary goal of mental health treatment courts is to reduce the likelihood of recidivism for individuals with mental health-related issues (Sarteschi, 2013).

Need for Mental Health Treatment Courts

According to a 2006 report from the Bureau of Justice Statistics, roughly 1.26 million individuals incarcerated in the Unites States suffer from mental illness (Glaze & James, 2006). This constitutes about 45% of federal inmates, 56% of state inmates, and 64% of jail inmates. Another 861,000 individuals on probation suffer from some form of mental illness (Sarteschi, 2013). From a policy standpoint, many argue individuals suffering from mental illnesses should be treated by the mental health system rather than confined in prison and jails (Boccaccini, Christy, Poythress, & Kershaw, 2005). As Casey and Rottman (2005) suggest, individuals with mental illness may experience higher rates of recidivism by not having their mental health needs met. The types of mental illness these individuals experience differs from person to person.

Steadman and Veysey (1997) have noted that individuals involved in the criminal justice system have mental health illnesses that include anxiety, antisocial personality disorder, posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD), and severe depression. Men are more likely to experience antisocial personality compared to women, while being black or Hispanic correlates to an increased likelihood of having schizophrenia compared to whites (National Mental Health Association, 2003). For most of these individuals, treatment services while incarcerated are often insufficient. According to Glaze and James (2006), one-third of individuals in state facilities, a quarter in federal facilities, and roughly 18% in jails receive some type of treatment for their mental health issues. These numbers are quite alarming compared to the percentages of individuals experiencing mental illness. The use of mental health courts has become a means to respond, perhaps more appropriately, to individuals who suffer from mental illness (Honegger, 2015).

Development of Mental Health Treatment Courts

Similar to the key components of drug courts, mental health courts operate under the concept of therapeutic jurisprudence (Winick, 1999; Wexler, 1998). Like drug courts, mental health courts are voluntary in nature, and individuals who are motivated to get help often seek them as an option (Silberberg, Vital, & Brakel, 2001). Mental health courts adhere to a team-based approach which includes a judge, attorneys, and treatment providers. Using treatment providers is a crucial part of mental health court, since responding to the individuals’ needs is at the forefront (Casey & Rottman, 2005). In many mental health court jurisdictions, individuals who volunteer for court have to meet other eligibility criteria. For example, most courts will require an individual to have an Axis I diagnosis, which can include major depression, schizophrenia, or panic attacks (Stead-man et al., 2005). Besides mental health criteria, mental health courts may also specify types of offenses as eligibility criteria. Boothroyd, Mercado, Poythress, Christy, and Petrila (2005) note the mental health court in Broward County, Florida, will only accept nonviolent individuals. These can include misdemeanors and traffic infractions; however, individuals with criminal charges such as driving under the influence or domestic violence are often excluded. However, some research indicates that some individuals charged with violent crimes will be able to go through felony mental health courts (Walker, Cummings, & Cummings, 2012). Like drug courts, mental health courts see clients more frequently in the beginning and then decrease the need for appearances once individuals move further in the process (Walker, Pann, Shapiro, & Van Hasselt, 2015). Sanctions also are used as a way to reprimand individuals who are not compliant with their obligations. These may include anything from additional hearings to jail time (Redlich, Steadman, Monahan, Petrila, & Griffin, 2006).

Do Mental Health Courts Work?

In a recent systematic review, Honegger (2015) found four outcomes typically examined by researchers of mental health courts, including psychiatric symptoms, connection to behavioral health services, quality of life, and recidivism. As it pertains to psychiatric symptoms, Cosden, Ellens, Schnell, and Yamini-Diouf, (2005), using a global assessment of functioning (GAF), found mental health court participants and non-mental health court participants had similar scores over the assessment period. This led Cosden et al. (2005) also to assess participants using the Behavior and Symptom Identification Scale-32 (BASIS-32) which led to improved psychiatric symptoms scores and quality of life for mental health court participants over non-mental health court participants.

Boothroyd et al. (2003), in a study of connecting individuals to behavioral health services, found that mental health court participants experience nearly a 20% increase in receiving behavioral health services compared to non-mental health court participants. Additionally, the mental health court participants had more access to mental health services compared to non-mental health court participants. This demonstrates the ability of mental health courts to address the needs of participants rather than merely responding with punitive sanctions.

Several studies have been linked to mental health courts demonstrating their ability to reduce recidivism among participants (Frailing, 2010; Henrinckx, Swart, Ama, Dolezal, & King, 2005). For example, Henrinckx et al. (2005) assessed recidivism reduction for a sample of 386 pre-post misdemeanants in mental health court. Benefits for those in the mental health court included everything from increased case management to half of the mental health court participants experiencing a decrease in recidivism. Further, nearly 66% of participants did not experience any new probation violations (Henrinckx et al., 2005). Similarly, Frailing (2010) compared a sample of mental health court participants with a sample of individuals receiving standard treatment practices. Mental health court participants experienced reductions in both incarceration and substance abuse relapse. Therefore, the research on mental health courts results in positive outcomes for participants. We now turn our attention to veterans’ treatment courts.

Veterans’ Treatment Courts

Veterans’ treatment courts are one of the newest problem-solving courts to be established and widely implemented across the United States. As a result of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq (hereafter post-9/11 wars), drug and mental health court judges began to see an increasing number of veterans coming through their courts with substance abuse and mental health issues (Johnson et al., 2016). Although veterans have high rates of mental illness and alcohol and drug addiction (U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, 2012; Hawkins, 2010), it is their shared prior military experience and the complex issues encountered by veterans that resulted in the development of veterans’ treatment courts throughout the United States (see Chapter 12 for more about veterans).

Need for Veteran Specific Treatment

According to the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (2016b), there are over 19.4 million veterans living in the United States, not including active duty military personnel. Of these veterans, approximately 2.6 million are post-9/11 veterans (U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, 2016a), with an estimated 1.5 million service members who served in or around active combat zones during the post-9/11 wars (Hawkins, 2010). While military experience undeniably has positive benefits (Elder, 1998), a large number of veterans report difficulty readjusting to civilian life and believe that the public cannot relate to the postdeployment struggles encountered by veterans (Pew Research Center, 2011). Readjusting to civilian life is even more difficult for servicemen and -women who experienced a traumatic event while enlisted, served in combat, or were injured or knew someone who was injured or killed (Morin, 2011). As such, there is no doubt that serving in the military and being deployed to active combat zones is difficult and affects the future life experiences of veterans (Bouffard, 2005; Culp, Youstin, Englander, & Lynch, 2013). Upon enlistment, armed service members are quickly institutionalized into the military culture. The norms and viewpoints ingrained in servicemen and women while enlisted (e.g., authoritarian rule, warrior ethos, and structured environment) are difficult, if not impossible, to abandon upon return to civilian life (Ahlin & Douds, 2016; Hollingshead, 1946).

A growing body of empirical research documents the long-lasting effects of military service on veterans (Adams, Corrigan, & Larson, 2012; Institute of Medicine, 2013; Spiro & Settersten, 2012). Of primary concern are the high rates of mental illness, posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD), traumatic brain injury (TBI), drug addiction, and homelessness experienced by veterans. A study of Operation Enduring Freedom (OEF) and Operation Iraqi Freedom (OIF) veterans found that almost two in five were diagnosed with a mental health disorder, including PTSD and depression (Seal et al., 2009). Moreover, studies have found that upwards of 35% of soldiers and Marines returning from combat in Iraq or Afghanistan met the criteria for alcohol misuse (Hoge et al., 2004). Additionally, veterans are overrepresented in the homeless population, making up 11% of the adult homeless population (U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, 2015) while only accounting for 8% of the total adult population (U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, 2016b). These concerns are not unique to post-9/11 veterans, as veterans from prior war eras (e.g., World War II and the Korean and Vietnam wars) faced similar postdeployment issues. However, the public, medical, and academic communities are paying closer attention to veterans’ postdeployment needs (Sayer, Carlson, & Frazier, 2014).

According to the most recent comprehensive statistics, in 2011–2012, an estimated 181,500 veterans were incarcerated in jails and state and federal prison facilities across the United States (Bronson, Carson, Noonan, & Berzofsky, 2015). Veterans incarcerated in prison are significantly more likely compared to nonveteran prisoners to have mental health disorders (48% versus 36%, respectively) and have been diagnosed with PTSD (23% versus 11%, respectively), with similar trends occurring for those incarcerated in local jails. Veterans also are more likely to be serving time for a violent offense (64%) compared to nonveterans (48%) (Bronson et al., 2015). Although many nonveteran justice-involved individuals suffer from mental illness, drug addiction, and homelessness, as the previous statistics indicate, it is the shared experiences among military veterans that create an environment conducive for veterans’ treatment courts, and it is the chief motivator for seeking treatment (Ahlin & Douds, 2016).

Development of Veterans’ Treatment Courts

As the correctional population steadily increased between 1980 and 2010 (Glaze, 2011), the number of veterans incarcerated in state and federal prisons also increased, albeit at a slower rate than nonveterans (Bronson et al., 2015). Unlike previous wars, the public has paid more attention to the issues and challenges encountered by post-9/11 veterans upon return from deployment to civilian life (Sayer et al., 2014). The first veterans’ treatment court was implemented in Anchorage, Alaska, in 2004 (Hawkins, 2010), but its existence was not widely known until Judge Robert Russell implemented a similar court in Buffalo, New York, in 2008 (Johnson et al., 2016).

The development of veterans’ treatment courts stemmed from the large number of veterans involved in the criminal justice system, particularly those who were involved in drug and mental health courts (Russell, 2009a). The number of veterans’ treatment courts operating throughout the United States has grown tremendously in recent years, from just 24 operating in 2010 to over 300 operating in 2014 (Johnson et al., 2016). Based on the drug and mental health court models, veterans’ treatment courts provide an alternative to incarceration for veterans of foreign wars who become involved in the criminal justice system, typically because of drug use and/or mental health issues (Lucas & Hanrahan, 2016; Russell, 2009a). Veterans’ treatment courts draw on various punishment philosophies but have overarching goals of holding offenders accountable and providing rehabilitation through effective treatment (Russell, 2009a). Veterans’ treatment courts typically target offenders convicted of felony and misdemeanor nonviolent crimes but for which the underlying cause of their criminal behavior is drug use or mental health problems (Russell, 2009a). Some newer veterans’ treatment courts, however, allow individuals convicted of violent offenses to participate in the court (Holbrook & Anderson, 2011; Johnson et al., 2016). Ultimately, individual veterans’ treatment courts determine which offenses are eligible to be heard, with some courts excluding charges with mandatory sentences, child sexual assault felonies, and/or drug manufacturing charges (Holbrook & Anderson, 2011).

Similar to other problem-solving courts, veterans’ treatment courts typically adopt key components to guide the operation of the court. These elements represent a combination of the key components of drug courts and mental health courts, such as the use of a nonadversarial approach to handling cases that includes the involvement of the judge, prosecutor, defense attorney, supervision officer, veterans’ administration, and community-based organizations, all of which come together to provide intensive treatment and rehabilitation, typically in lieu of incarceration. Veterans’ treatment courts are also characterized by ongoing judicial interaction between the veteran and the judge, who at times is a veteran as well (Russell, 2009a). Additionally, veterans’ treatment courts are designed to be less punitive and more healing and restorative than traditional courts while still holding offenders accountable for their actions (Baldwin & Rukus, 2015).

While veterans’ treatment courts on the surface may resemble drug and mental health courts, they are unique. Veterans’ treatment courts take into account the distinctive characteristics and camaraderie of military personnel and veterans. According to Judge Russell (2009a), “veterans court allows for veterans to go through the treatment court process with people who are similarly situated and have common past experiences and needs” (p. 364). Mentoring is another integral component of veterans’ treatment courts, where non-justice-involved veterans provide social support to court participants and assist the participants in setting goals and problem solving (Holbrook & Anderson, 2011; Johnson et al., 2016; Russell, 2009a, 2009b). In a national survey of over 300 veterans’ treatment courts, Johnson and colleagues (2016) report that 65% of courts offered mentoring by veteran volunteers to court participants.

Do Veterans’ Treatment Courts Work?

While the use of veterans’ treatment courts has expanded in recent years, research on the effectiveness of these courts is underexplored. The few studies that have been conducted are either anecdotal in nature (Russell, 2009a, 2009b) or limited in scope (Holbrook & Anderson, 2011; Johnson, Stolar, Wu, Coonan, & Graham, 2015; Knudsen & Wingenfeld, 2016; Slattery, Dugger, Lamb, & Williams, 2013). Judge Robert Russell (2009a) provides anecdotal evidence of the success of the Buffalo Veterans Treatment Court in New York. Specifically, in a one-year follow-up of the court’s inception, no participants or graduates recidivated. Additionally, in a descriptive study of 11 veterans’ courts across the country, Holbrook and Anderson (2011) examined the success of 59 graduates from these courts. Of the 59 court graduates, only one reoffended following graduation (Holbrook & Anderson, 2011). Another study examined factors predictive of arrests for a group of 100 participants of a veterans’ treatment court in Harris County, Texas (Johnson et al., 2015). Although Johnson and colleagues (2015) did not report the number of participants who recidivated, results suggest that court participants who spent fewer days in the court program, had a prior opioid misuse diagnosis, and were unsuccessfully discharged were more likely to be rearrested.

Beyond a focus on reduction in recidivism, studies have examined other positive benefits resulting from participation in a veterans’ treatment court. According to Russell (2009a), participants and graduates of the Buffalo Veterans’ Treatment Court experienced positive life changes, including reuniting with family and friends, having stable employment and a place to live, remaining drug free, and successfully managing their mental health issues. Participants also experienced a positive change in their attitude, including “a renewed sense of hope, pride, accomplishment, motivation, and confidence in their ability to continue to face challenges and better their lives” (Russell, 2009a, p. 370). Slattery and colleagues (2013), in an exploratory study of veterans’ court participants in Colorado Springs, Colorado, found that veterans enrolled in the court experienced improvements in mental health and lower substance use over time, including improvements in PTSD and depression symptoms and severity and a reduction in the use of alcohol and all illegal substances. Knudsen and Wing-enfeld (2016) report similar findings with respect to positive outcomes (e.g., reduction in PTSD, depression, and substance abuse) and improvements in quality of life (e.g., family relations, emotional well-being, sleep, energy, social connectedness, and social functioning) for veterans’ treatment court participants from a large urban area. Even though previous examinations of the effectiveness of veterans’ courts are limited in scope and methodology, which reduces the generalizability of findings, the limited evidence seems to favor the continued use of veterans’ courts and provides a foundation for future evaluative research.

Other Specialty Courts

In addition to drug, mental health, and veterans’ courts, local jurisdictions across the United States have developed other problem-solving courts to address specific subsets of the population that come in contact with the criminal justice system. As seen in Table 3.1, an estimated 4,000 distinct

Table 3.1   Problem-solving Courts throughout the United States

Type of Specialized Court

Location and Year First Developed

Estimated Number in Operation


Miami Dade, FL (1989)

1,540 a


San Diego, CA (1999)

25 b


Manhattan, NY (1993)

25 b


Providence, RI (1994)

6 b


Dona Ana County, NM (1995)

262 a

Domestic violence

Brooklyn, NY (1996)

206 b

Mental health

Broward County, FL (1997)

350 c


Harlem, NY (2001)

26 a


Amherst, NY (2001)

1 b

Veterans’ treatment

Anchorage, AK (2004)

272 a

Sex offender

Oswego County, NY (2005)

9 d


New York, NY (2013)

8 b

Other specialized courts e

over l,500 a b


over 4,000


a  Data retrieved from the National Institute of Justice (2016). Numbers current as of December 2014.

b  Data retrieved from Huddleston and Marlowe (2011). Numbers current as of December 2009.

c  Data retrieved from Honegger (2015). Numbers current as of October 2015.

d  Data retrieved from http://NYcourts.gov (2016) and Parkinson (2016). Numbers current as of January 2016.

e  Other specialized courts include family treatment, juvenile, truancy, and tribal courts.

problem-solving courts exist throughout the United States. These specialized courts include, but are not limited to, homeless courts, domestic violence courts, reentry courts, prostitution courts, DWI courts, gambling courts, gun courts, tribal courts, and truancy courts.

Unlike drug and mental health courts, limited research has been conducted on the effectiveness of these other problem-solving courts. The research that does exist demonstrates that newer problem-solving courts tend to be based on the drug court model, with many centering their principles and practices around the 10 key components of drug courts (Huddleston & Marlowe, 2011). Table 3.1 provides a list of the variety of problem-solving courts in operation throughout the United States, the location and year of first development, and the approximate number in operation. It is important to keep in mind when examining Table 3.1 that there is no online repository for problem-solving courts. Thus, the number of problem-solving courts in operation throughout the United States is a rough approximation and is only as current as the most current organizational and research data available. Following is a brief description of the purpose and development of other problem-solving courts currently in operation throughout the United States.

Homeless Courts

The first homeless court was implemented in 1989 in San Diego County, California, to address the needs of the local homeless veteran population. Since then, other homeless courts have taken hold in cities across the United States and have expanded to serve other homeless populations, including nonveterans and battered and homeless women (Binder, 2002). Homeless courts address the needs of homeless defendants who have been charged with minor misdemeanor offenses and/or who have outstanding warrants, typically related to quality of life citations, public disturbance citations, and other issues related to homelessness (Binder, 2002; see Chapter 11 for more on homeless offenders). One feature that distinguishes many homeless courts from other problem-solving courts is that they will resolve outstanding warrants, with some also processing new offenses (Kerry & Pennell, 2001).

Homeless courts not only seek to resolve past citations and outstanding warrants of homeless individuals, they also seek to end the homelessness cycle. Many factors contribute to the homelessness cycle, including the fact that homeless individuals tend to have frequent contact with the police, receive multiple citations during those contacts, and fear attending court because of their inability to pay their citation fines (Binder, 2002). Homeless courts address these issues by providing access to housing and other social services, such as mental health and substance abuse treatment, life skills and literacy classes, and vocational training, in lieu of fines and incarceration (Huddleston & Marlowe, 2011). To date, only one descriptive study of a homeless court exists. This study, of the San Diego Homeless Court, reports high levels of resolved cases, improved access to the courts, and reduced fear of law enforcement among court participants (Kerry & Pennell, 2001).

Community Courts

Unlike other problem-solving courts that address the specialized needs of specific offenders, community courts seek to address quality of life crimes, such as vandalism, petty theft, public intoxication, abandoned property, and low-level drug possession, which tend to be committed in localized areas within a community (Berman & Feinblatt, 2001; Huddleston, & Marlowe, 2011). One defining feature of community courts is their location. Typically, community courts focus on one neighborhood and are centrally located in relation to that neighborhood, as opposed to being located in large downtown courthouses (Lang, 2011; Lee et al., 2013). The first community court was implemented in 1993 in Manhattan, New York, as a way to address low-level crimes committed in and around Times Square. As of 2009, approximately 25 community courts operate throughout the United States (Huddleston & Marlowe, 2011).

Community courts emerged as an extension of the “broken windows theory” of crime and community policing initiatives that took hold in the late 1980s (Lee et al., 2013; see Wilson & Kelling, 1982 for a detailed discussion of broken windows theory). The concept of community courts stems from the belief that neighborhoods face their own unique minor crime problems, and if these minor problems can be addressed, quality of life within these communities can be enhanced. Community courts seek not only to hold offenders accountable for their actions but to transform the neighborhoods in which they are located (Lee et al., 2013). Offenders who partake in community courts can be required to participate in restorative justice programs, community service, and/or individualized social services, such as drug and mental health treatment. Moreover, community courts emphasize partnerships with various stakeholders throughout the community, including residents, store owners, schools, religious institutions, and other community groups. Overall, these courts bring individuals from the community together to determine the best approach for creating long-lasting solutions in their community (Lang, 2011).

Domestic Violence Courts

Domestic violence courts are comprised of a specialized caseload of offenders who either have pled guilty to domestic violence charges or have charges pending against them for crimes such as intimate partner violence, elder abuse, child abuse, or violence between other relatives (Labriola, Bradley, O’Sullivan, Rempel, & Moore, 2009). The first felony domestic violence court opened in 1996 in Brooklyn, New York (Newmark, Rempel, Diffily, & Kane, 2001), and as of 2009, 338 domestic violence courts had been identified throughout the United States (Labriola et al., 2009). Domestic violence courts emerged in the United States as a response to the considerable increase in domestic violence cases that were coming before the courts. This rise in domestic violence cases was due in part to several factors, including the feminist movement, which argued for the recognition of domestic violence as a crime instead of just a family matter; the 1994 Violence Against Women Act, which established pro-arrest laws for perpetrators of domestic violence; and stricter law enforcement and prosecution of those who engage in domestic violence (Labriola et al., 2009).

Similar to other problem-solving courts, domestic violence courts utilize a therapeutic, nonadversarial approach to managing cases, present a coordinated effort between judges, staff, and treatment personnel to provide access to effective treatment, and hold offenders accountable for their actions through frequent interactions between participants and judges (Ostrom, 2003). Additionally, domestic violence courts have been created throughout the United States with many goals in mind, including providing services and safety for victims, holding offenders accountable, providing treatment for offenders, and reducing recidivism. Domestic violence courts seek to coordinate their responses with all parties involved (e.g., judges, probation officers, prosecutors, victim services organizations, treatment providers, and victims) and, through the training of domestic violence court personnel, seek to make informed decisions regarding the necessary actions in managing the dynamics of domestic violence (Labriola et al., 2009).

Despite the fact that domestic violence courts have been in existence for 20 years, relatively few studies examine the effectiveness of domestic violence courts (Labriola et al., 2009). However, a common theme that emerges in the examination of domestic violence courts is the requirement of domestic violence court participants to participate in a batterer intervention program (BIP). While limited research focuses on the impact of completing a BIP as part of participation in a domestic violence court, Petrucci (2010) is cautiously optimistic regarding the impact of such treatment. Nevertheless, the current literature is mixed regarding whether domestic violence courts are effective at reducing future domestic violence. Some studies found a reduction in recidivism, specifically arrests for domestic violence, among court participants (Gover, MacDonald, & Alpert, 2003; Harrell, Schaffer, DeStefano, & Castro, 2006; Petrucci, 2010); while others found no reduction in recidivism (Harrell, Newmark, Visher, & Castro, 2007; Newmark et al., 2001) and an increase in probation revocation rates (Harrell et al., 2006).

Reentry Courts

Reentry courts are designed to assist with the reintegration of ex-offenders as they return to the community from a term of incarceration in local, state, or federal institutions. Reentry courts assist returning citizens with finding employment, securing housing, reconnecting with family, and remaining drug and crime free (Huddleston & Marlowe, 2011), while holding them accountable for their actions in the community through formalized hearings and judicial involvement. Reentry case management services typically begin before an offender is released from jail or prison and will continue until the offender successfully graduates from the reentry court program. The reentry court model requires the use of a collaborative approach between the prison system, judicial system, community corrections, and other community-based partners.

The first reentry court was established in 2001 in Harlem, New York. Since then, over two dozen reentry courts have appeared in jurisdictions across the United States. These reentry courts can take various forms, such as reentry drug courts, which focus solely on drug-addicted returning offenders and utilize the drug court model. Reentry courts also exist at the federal level and serve offenders released from the U.S. Bureau of Prisons (i.e., federal prison system) into the custody of the U.S. Probation Office with oversight by the U.S. District Courts and U.S. Attorney’s Office (Huddleston & Marlowe, 2011). Regardless of the type of reentry court, all have the overarching goal of reducing recidivism of parolees.


Each of the specialty courts discussed in this chapter share a similar goal in providing a more therapeutic, rather than a punitive, approach to handling individuals’ cases; however, they each have their own unique aspects as well. For example, drug courts seek to reduce individuals’ substance abuse and mental health courts seek to alleviate individuals’ mental health issues, whereas veterans’ courts seek to address the same issues while considering individuals’ time in service. What is important for each of these specialty courts is the focus on addressing the unique set of needs individuals present with. The research on specialty courts indicates they are promising (e.g., drug courts, mental health courts, and veterans’ courts); however, more research should be conducted on other specialty courts (e.g., homeless courts, community courts and reentry courts) to determine their effectiveness. In light of the favorable research regarding specialty courts and the focus of lawmakers to reduce spending and alleviate the growing correctional population, it appears as if the use of specialty courts as a way to address the needs of specific subsets of offenders will continue to grow in use within the American criminal justice system.

For drug courts and mental health courts, the body of experimental research allows us to draw more generalizable conclusions in terms of the efficacy of such courts. For others, such as veterans’ courts and the other courts discussed, more research is needed. It is the task of researchers to provide more in-depth analyses of these courts to move beyond mere descriptions and to be able to draw more robust conclusions about their effectiveness. The value added can be beneficial for policy makers, by implementing practices that are shown to be beneficial, while at the same time assisting individuals who are struggling with certain aspects of their life to become productive in society.


Throughout this chapter, we use the terms specialty court and problem-solving court interchangeably.


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