How problem-solving courts can help reduce re-offending

In a speech on prison reform today, the Justice Secretary Liz Truss said she wanted to see prison numbers reduced in the UK, but not by cap or quota. Instead she highlighted, amongst other solutions, the role of problem-solving courts in providing targeted interventions for offending rooted in issues such as drug addiction and mental health . Not only can problem-solving courts help reduce re-offending, the Justice Secretary believes the judiciary can play part by making decisions on the  sentences they give out. These sentiments were echoed by the Lord Chief Justice late last year  as well as the Justice Select Committee’s report on the role of the magistracy. In two of our major reports last year we highlighted the evidence for, as well as a plan to deliver sustainable, cost-effective problem-solving courts. Here Director of the Centre, Phil Bowen sets out how problem-solving courts can meet the challenges cited by the Justice Secretary today:

Phil Bowen

In our report on the future of criminal court reform, Better Courts: a blueprint for innovation, we set out a framework for how we think the criminal courts can meet the challenges of the coming five years. Fundamental to the vision we set out is the evidence and practice around ‘problem-solving,’ a concept that has recently been supported by the Lord Chancellor.

Traditional courts hear cases, settle the legal dispute and apply whatever sentence is needed according to the law. Problem-solving courts, in the criminal realm, go beyond that and see the courts’ role as overseeing and monitoring the sentences passed. They have a more active role in understanding what services are available in the community and seek to coordinate them to ensure sentences are complied with. They are often characterised by having a series of sanctions and rewards to motivate rehabilitation. ‘Problem-solving’ is often marked by specialisation. Take, for example, the long running Family Drug and Alcohol  Court in London. This court specifically focuses on a particular cohort of people, parents with identified substance misuse issues, and focuses the courts’ attention on them.

It is true to say that problem-solving itself is not a wholly new idea. Already, people addicted to drugs receive some form of ‘problem-solving’, by receiving court-mandated treatment regularly supervised by the court. Many youth courts, hearing cases of anyone under the age of 18, already adopt elements of problem-solving practice, recognising that if we can stop offending amongst young people, we can make a material difference to their lives and to our communities.

So, the call for problem-solving that we make is to re-emphasise and extend, rather than revolutionise. For example, in recent years, the ability of the system to regularly supervise drug-addicted offenders has frayed at the edges, as court reviews become less frequent and offenders are not seen by the same judge at each review (both things that evidence suggests drive reductions in re-offending and substance misuse). We have never had a ‘problem-solving’ response to issues like domestic abuse. A number of youth courts we have spoken to want to extend their ‘problem-solving’ approach and build more creative, evidence-led approaches to youth crime. In a report due out in the next few days, we outline how courts could provide a better response to offending by young adults.

In short, our call for more ‘problem-solving’ is a call for a better criminal court system. Better at reducing re-offending. Better at using its resources. Better at giving everyone a fair chance. Better courts for a fairer and more effective justice system.