Reforming the courts

January 27, 2014

Over the last two decades, criminal justice reformers in the United States have begun to use new and innovative court models to tackle drug addiction and alcoholism, reduce the unnecessary use of imprisonment and stop people coming back into the criminal justice system. Drug Courts and Sobriety Courts were conceived by judges in response to the large numbers of people being incarcerated for crimes that were predominantly related to drug and alcohol misuse.

The big idea behind the courts is that it makes little sense to simply throw these people away into the prison system, where they will continue to feed their addictions, struggle to have their issues addressed, and as a result, are likely to reoffend after release. These courts offer offenders a choice: get clean and sober with our help, or go to jail.

Treatment and accountability

Drug and Sobriety Courts work on the premise that offering treatment, but combining it with real accountability, is the key to driving behaviour change. Offenders are held accountable in two key ways: first, there is no room for uncertainty about whether they are drinking or using drugs, because new technology puts the issue beyond doubt. For example, continuous ‘transdermal’ alcohol monitoring allows individuals’ alcohol consumption patterns to be monitored through an ankle bracelet. The bracelet samples the offender’s skin for the presence of alcohol once every thirty minutes (or 48 times a day). So judges know for sure how an offender is progressing with the order of the court.

Secondly, the offender is brought back before the same judge every week to review their progress. This continuity of relationship, together with the use of swift and certain sanctions for non-compliance, helps to change offenders’ behaviour and reduce their reoffending. Drug and Sobriety Courts are proven to cut crime and reduce the costs of justice, with savings of up to $26 for every $1 invested. So why have we failed, thus far, to mainstream these courts in England and Wales?

It’s true that we ran a few pilots of these models from 2005 onwards. But part of the reason these attempts didn’t stick is that the justice system is still highly-centralised – creating a culture where the people who work in it often feel that they have to ask permission from central government to do anything innovative, and therefore don’t ask enough. At other times, central government is simply a barrier to new developments, perhaps because of personality issues or squabbles over the ownership of reforms.

How can the government help?

So how can government actually be a help, not a hindrance? How can government encourage the creation of specialist courts and invite new contributions from partner agencies that could make such a difference to the outcomes in the criminal justice system?

I believe that, rather than imposing one particular model from the centre, the key is to create the right set of incentives for the innovation. For example, the current plans to introduce a ‘Rehabilitation Revolution’ using the private and voluntary sectors and a payment-by-results model should be combined with a meaningful incentive to reduce criminal justice demand. This would encourage providers to innovate at court, in conjunction with the judiciary, as well as at the prison gate. Government should also offer the information and toolkits that practitioners need to begin new projects, to help facilitate the partnerships required for it to succeed and to hold the key actors in the system (including the judges) much more accountable for the outcomes they deliver.

Drug Court and Sobriety Courts were borne out of American frustration with aspects of a failing criminal justice system. The trick for us in the UK is not simply to import these models wholesale, but instead to create the conditions where our own judges, magistrates, treatment specialists and probation providers feel empowered and energised to implement their own ideas. It’s all part of driving the kind of culture change we need – so that the people who work in the criminal justice system no longer look to central government for permission to do things differently but are inspired to just get on and try something new, and ask for forgiveness instead.

This blog originally appeared in Ethos magazine

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