US-style problem solving courts plan losing momentum, says legal charity

Originally published in The Guardian

Owen Bowcott

 

Ten new US-style problem-solving courts – aimed at reducing reoffending – should be established across England and Wales as soon as possible, a legal charity has recommended.
The initiative, which involves judges regularly reviewing whether those already convicted are turning around their lives, was championed by the last justice secretary, Michael Gove, but is in danger of losing momentum, according to the Centre for Justice Innovation.

 

Liz Truss, the current justice secretary, has so far gone no further than saying she wants to explore the use of the courts for tackling underlying difficulties in offenders’ lives, such as drug and alcohol addiction or mental illness.

 

But plans for a pilot programme announced in May are in danger of stalling, the centre said. “There has been a lack of detailed plans for expected specialist court pilots,” it added.

 

The organisation says it is publishing its report because of “the recent apparent slowing momentum for problem-solving court reform … despite the most senior family judge, Sir James Munby, last month saying there must be ‘no rowing back’ [from the scheme].”

 

Establishing and funding 10 problem-solving courts over the next four years would cost the Ministry of Justice about £2.6m, the centre estimates, but deliver significant savings through the rehabilitation of repeat offenders.

 

Phil Bowen, the director of the Centre for Justice Innovation, said: “There is a real opportunity to enable our criminal courts to contribute to cutting crime. The evidence for problem-solving courts is compelling – they work and are deliverable when set up in the right areas, with the right local judges and well-resourced treatment and rehabilitation services.

 

“It is essential they have proper support from government and the senior judiciary. With our courts under unprecedented strain, problem-solving courts aren’t a silver bullet but they offer a window of opportunity to cut crime, turn lives around and keep communities safer.”

 

Judge Michael Findlay Baker CBE QC, who founded the St Albans crown court project, said: “Problem-solving court projects … provide a rehabilitative programme as an alternative to custody. [They help] prolific acquisitive addicted offenders who badly want to change their way of life and who are prepared to admit all their offending, often measured in hundreds of burglaries.

 

“The benefits of these programmes and the lessons to be learned from them should be more widely shared, particularly with those seeking to set up new problem-solving courts.”

 

A conference in London on Wednesday will examine the few courts operating similar schemes in the UK, such as the 12 family drug and alcohol courts and the Choices and Consequences programme in St Albans.

 

Last year Gove, who lost his cabinet post in the post-referendum reshuffle, met judges from New York who developed the concept of bringing offenders back before judges so that their progress on sentences that provide alternatives to custody can be monitored.

 

“Choices and Consequences problem-solving requires dedicated judicial time and can also require courts to reconfigure how cases are listed,” the centre’s report notes. “We are aware that there is considerable interest in the potential of problem- solving courts in many areas of the country. For example, a number of police and crime commissioners would be interested in supporting and funding new court-based problem-solving initiatives.

 

“Problem-solving courts may produce a small increase in the immediate caseloads of probation services, but this will likely be balanced out by savings in custody and post-custodial supervision. The time has come to set out an ambitious plan for the delivery of problem-solving courts, over the course of the current parliament.”

 

Sir Oliver Heald QC, the minister at the MoJ responsible for courts, said: “We will be taking forward problem-solving courts and are exploring opportunities with the judiciary.

 

“Through this work and by harnessing technology and innovation in our courts, we will ensure vulnerable offenders get the help they need to solve underlying problems and cut reoffending.

 

“This government is determined to break the cycle of reoffending and spare more people the misery of being a victim of crime.”

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