US-style problem-solving courts - how relevant to the UK?

Sean Creaney
Thursday, June 2, 2016

Prime Minister David Cameron set out plans back in February for an overhaul of the prison system - promised to be the biggest shake up since the Victorian era, he claimed. Included in the proposals was a commitment to re-introduce problem-solving courts.

We waste some £9.5bn a year locking people up. And to make it worse at least half of all those sent to prison reoffend. Most are there for non-serious offending, on short-term sentences. Could problem-solving courts be the answer?

Originally established in Miami in 1989, problem-solving courts see offenders dealt with in a more therapeutic, holistic and participatory way. Progress is overseen by judges who work to address underlying reasons for offending. They do this by working closely with criminal justice agencies - offered as a sort of "one-stop shop".

In addition to what Cameron has said, Justice Secretary Michael Gove has further promised to re-introduce US-style problem-solving courts. It is claimed he has worked hard to convince judges of their merits. This is important, as of course magistrates and judges will be crucial to their success. 

Penelope Gibbs - chair of the Standing Committee for Youth Justice and CEO/founder of Transform Justice - has written an excellent blog on the government's plans to relaunch problem-solving courts. I will not repeat what was said but note some key challenges to complement Penelope's points and provoke discussion and ignite debate:

  • As was reported last week in CYP Now, funding for Youth Offending Teams (YOTs) will be cut by a further £9m. YOTs offer vital support not least in relation to mental ill health, experience of drug and alcohol problems and housing issues. With judges relying significantly on such agencies and community services, could this affect courts, ability to deliver justice?
  • There is an obvious fear of the net widening. In other words, agencies refer cases to court so that people who offend can get the support they need. It would take courage in times of austerity but it is essential that social welfare services are protected and people aren't brought to court unnecessarily.  It is important that only appropriate children and young people are referred to a problem-solving court. This would be after careful assessment. It is too early to say whether Asset Plus is fit for purpose in this regard. Children who are appropriately referred will benefit from support from a range of services. Courts can then monitor the order and services provided.
  • Judges and magistrates tend to use language that is not understandable to children and often reliant on jargon. Children and young people tell us that this can be disengaging and increase the likelihood of non-compliance and compound rather than help to tackle the issues children are experiencing.
  • Offenders may feel uncertain about the process. Practitioners then must remind children about appointments and encourage them to attend meetings to prevent a breach for non-compliance.
  • It is essential that judges and magistrates are skilled at dealing with difficult and complex cases in a problem-solving way. YOTs, justices of the peace and district judges and service providers need training in this approach if it is to succeed. The Centre for Justice Innovation is hoping to be funded to take this approach.

As Gareth Jones, chair of the Association of Youth Offending Team managers notes, through utilising a non-judicial based approach that is user-led, problem-solving courts could fit well in the youth justice arena. However, such blue sky, creative thinking can be problematic as "buy in" from stakeholders and particularly sceptics within government departments can be difficult to achieve.  

The Lord Carlile inquiry into the operation and effectiveness of the youth court recommended introducing problem-solving conferencing. As Chris Stanley, an adviser to that inquiry and a Michael Sieff Foundation Trustee notes, Sieff is encouraging the government and Charlie Taylor to not rush into this in the youth court but to pilot and evaluate first.

Sean Creaney is an adviser at social justice charity Peer Power

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