Problem-solving courts put judges at the centre of rehabilitation. Generally operating out of existing courts, problem-solving courts yoke together the authority of the court and the services necessary to reduce reoffending and improve outcomes. This paper reviews the research on problem-solving courts and finds that, when used correctly, they can reduce reoffending and cut costs.
Coming at a time when both the Lord Chancellor and the Lord Chief Justice have expressed an interest in problem-solving, this review is designed to inform the development of government policy and, more importantly, to help shape the practice developed within pilots in England and Wales.
What does the evidence tell us?
There are many different kinds of problem-solving courts, each specialising in tackling a different need, type of crime, or even a different area. Looking at the evidence for different forms of court, we found:
- Drug courts: The evidence on adult drug courts is strong. It suggests that they are effective at reducing substance misuse and reoffending. They are particularly effective with offenders who present a higher risk of reoffending. However, the evidence on juvenile drug courts is negative. It suggests they have either minimal or harmful impacts on young offenders.
- Family drug and alcohol courts: The evidence on family drug and alcohol courts (and the related family treatment courts) is good. It suggests that they are effective in tackling parental substance misuse and can reduce the number of children permanently removed from their families.
- Mental health courts: 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.
- Domestic violence courts: 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. This is encouraging when set against the lack of other effective options for reducing reoffending by perpetrators of domestic violence.
- Community courts: 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).
We also looked at evidence on effective ways of working with women and young adults in the justice system. While problem-solving courts working with these groups are a new idea and little direct evidence is available on their effectiveness, the evidence suggests that there is potential for courts for these groups to improve outcomes if they draw from existing good practice.
Why do problem-solving courts work?
As well as looking at whether problem-solving courts work, we also looked at research which seeks to understand how they work. We found two main themes:
- Procedural fairness: evidence shows that perception of fair treatment leads to better compliance with court orders.
- Effective judicial monitoring is strongly associated with effectiveness. It relies on clear communication and certainty.