11 February 2016
Originally published in The Economist
IN A speech on February 8th David Cameron set out what he claimed was “the biggest shake-up of prisons since the Victorian era”. The package included more freedom for governors, league tables for jails and measures to improve ex-cons’ job prospects. But Mr Cameron also announced a proposal which could reduce the number of people who end up behind bars in the first place: the introduction of “problem-solving courts”.
Such courts were established in Miami in 1989 to deal with drug offenders. First- and second-timers were sent to treatment programmes, rather than prison, and their progress was overseen by a judge who could send them to jail if they relapsed. Other states soon began to copy the idea, which was cheap (or at least cheaper than prison) and added a hint of tough justice to rehabilitation. By 2012 there were 1,122 problem-solving courts in America, dealing with everything from school truancy and gambling addiction to gun crime and domestic abuse.
Mr Cameron is not the first British politician to be inspired by the model. In 2005 the Labour government set up a pilot court, the North Liverpool Community Justice Centre (NLCJC), which was billed as a one-stop shop for tackling crime. It was run by a single judge, bringing together justice agencies and services such as housing and domestic-violence support. Problem-solving meetings were often held after a guilty plea (someone steered towards crime by their homelessness might get help finding housing, for example). And some offenders could be dragged back to court to have their progress reviewed.
The early signs were good. Visitors enthused and staff spoke of the innovation made possible by different services sharing a home. But in 2012 a report by the Ministry of Justice found that criminals who had been through the NLCJC were no less likely to reoffend, and were more likely to break court orders, than a control group. Partly as a result, the Ministry of Justice closed the NLCJC in 2014.
Many still defend the project. Some argue that the outcomes for the toughest cases were good, even if the average results were no better than regular courts; others say that it struggled because it was largely forgotten by central government, after strong support in the early stages.
The family courts, which deal with disputes over divorce, custody of children and so on, have been more successful in introducing problem-solving. A study by Brunel University in 2014 found that 40% of mothers with drug or drink problems who went before the London Family Drug and Alcohol Court (which involves fortnightly meetings with the same judge, regular drug-testing and the threat of removing children) kicked their habit, compared with 25% of those going through the normal family courts. Specialist domestic-violence courts and Miami-esque drug courts have also proved effective, though to varying degrees.
What lessons can be learnt from these mixed results? First, that regular meetings with a familiar judge who can review sentences in light of offenders’ behaviour are crucial (by contrast, the NLCJC only occasionally assessed progress). A wide range of services must be consulted on the best approach in each case: much of the success of the family drug courts is due to the work of social services, says Penelope Gibbs of Transform Justice, a charity. And costs must be kept low. The NLCJC was so expensive that it was unlikely ever to be copied.
Michael Gove, the justice secretary, has worked hard to win over judges, some of whom are sceptical of an approach they see as infringing their independence. The potential of problem-solving courts makes such efforts wise. As well as reducing reoffending, says Andrew Neilson of the Howard League, another charity, they could bring about a valuable cultural shift. “The criminal-justice system currently makes sentencing decisions on very little evidence about what works,” he says. Regular contact between judges and the people they sentence might provide an incentive for that to change.