What are problem-solving courts?


Problem-solving courts put judges at the centre of rehabilitation. Based in existing court buildings, problem-solving courts yoke together the authority of the court and the services necessary to reduce re-offending and address the issues which drive crime.


Problem-solving courts share two key features. Firstly they are specialised: they work on a particular issue (like drug addiction), with a particular group (like women offenders), on a particular crime type (like domestic abuse) or in a particular neighbourhood.


Secondly, they focus on interventions like drug treatment or counselling which target the factors that lead people to crime, and monitor offenders to make sure that they are engaging with treatment.



Different types of problem-solving courts


There are many different kinds of problem-solving courts, because each one specialises in something different. Some of the most common kinds are:


  • Drug courts work with people whose offending is driven by drug addiction. They sentence people to drug treatment and bring them back before the court regularly to review their progress.
  • Domestic violence courts focus on keeping victims safe and prosecuting perpetrators. They have specially trained staff to support victims and monitor perpetrators in the community to ensure they comply with the orders of the court.
  • Community courts focus on crime in a specific neighbourhood, working with police and the community to address local issues. They can sentence low level offenders to support like education and training or drug treatment.


Other types of problem-solving courts include mental health courts and family drug and alcohol courts.


Problem-solving courts in the UK    


Although problem-solving courts are a US invention, and are widespread there, the UK has a number of problem-solving courts. Some of the most notable examples are:


  • Glasgow Drug Court, which is based in Glasgow Sheriff’s Court, targets offenders who steal to fund drug habits. The court is overseen by four specially trained sheriffs (equivalent to English circuit judges) who are supported by a dedicated team of nurses, criminal justice social workers and substance misuse workers who help offenders stop using and reduce reoffending. Offenders are reviewed regularly and can be jailed in they don’t engage with the help they are offered.
  • The London Family Drug and Alcohol Court, is a civil court which works with families at risk of having their children removed due to parental substance misuse. They are supported by a specialist team which arranges for drug treatment and offers counselling and other support. Each case is managed by one of  two specially trained judges who meets with them fortnightly to discuss their progress. Since this court opened in 2008, a further 12 family drug and alcohol courts have been established in England and Wales.
  • St Alban’s Choices and Consequences court, based in a crown court, works with some of Hertfordshire’s most prolific drug addicted offenders. They are offered drug treatment and employment advice and are reviewed monthly by the project’s dedicated judge.
  • Manchester and Salford Women’s problem-solving court is based at the city’s magistrate court and works with women offenders who are at risk of custody. Offenders are supported by probation and given access to gender-specific support through women’s centres. Offenders are regularly reviewed by a panel of magistrates who set goals for rehabilitation.


The evidence on problem-solving courts


We have reviewed the evidence on problem-solving courts and found the following:


  • There is strong evidence that adult drug courts reduce substance misuse and reoffending. They are particularly effective with offenders who present a higher risk of reoffending.
  • The evidence on juvenile drug courts is negative. It suggests they have either minimal or harmful impacts on young offenders.
  • The evidence on family treatment courts and family drug and alcohol courts is good. It suggests that they are effective in reducing parental substance misuse and can reduce the number of children permanently removed from their families.
  • The evidence on mental health courts is good. High-quality international evidence suggests that mental health courts are likely to reduce reoffending, although they may not directly impact offenders’ mental health.
  • The evidence on the impact of problem-solving domestic violence courts on outcomes for victims, such as victim safety and satisfaction, is good. The evidence on their ability to reduce the frequency and seriousness of a perpetrator reoffending is promising.
  • The international evidence that community courts reduce reoffending and improve compliance with court orders is promising. However, the evidence of their impact in England and Wales is mixed (though drawing conclusions from a single pilot site is difficult).
  • There is not yet enough evidence to assess the impact of problem-solving courts for under-18s, young adults or female offenders. However, what we know about the needs of those groups and the most effective ways to work with them suggests that problem-solving is a promising approach.