Criminal Justice Reform: Massachusetts Specialty Courts


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“Alcatraz – Inside the Main Cellhouse (4409974876)” by Daniel Ramirez from Honolulu, USA – Alcatraz – Inside the Main Cellhouse. Licensed under CC BY 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons – (Photo Credit)

Criminal Justice reform is a hot topic in today’s political discord.  In a time where the United States incarcerates a higher percentage of people than any country in the world with over 2 million prisoners. The country ranked 2nd in the world, is China with a million and a half prisoners. With these kinds of numbers, citizens and politicians alike are starting to call for change and are starting to ask some serious questions. What does this say about our society? What does this say about our “free” country? How do we do a better job of managing crime, keeping the public safe and rehabilitating people who have committed crimes so that they can be contributing members of society?

Incarcerating this many people has become a problem financially as well as morally and socially. Recently President Obama has made some moves to reduce the prison population by releasing prisoners who were sentenced to extreme time for minor drug offenses as those laws have begun to change. This is just the beginning of what will hopefully be system-wide changes in the coming years to reduce the amount of people incarcerated and bring justice back to our justice system.

Another wave of reform lies in the form of Specialty Treatment Courts. Many people are unaware that these exist and of the good work that is going on within them. Specialized Courts aim to divert people from prison who need various forms of treatment such as substance abuse treatment, mental health treatment, and more. There are over 3,000 specialized courts in the United States with the most common being drug courts. The first drug court was implemented in Florida in 1989 as a response to the crack-cocaine epidemic. The most common specialized courts are drug courts, mental health courts, homeless courts, and veteran’s courts. Each court attempts to treat a person’s needs that area not being met and that may have been related to the reason he/she committed a crime. For instance, drug-related crimes can be related to addiction and mental health issues. Treatment courts mainly address non-violent crimes, or lower level offenses, and often times address issues of multiple charges o“Drug courts are usually managed by a no adversarial and multidisciplinary team including judges, prosecutors, defense attorneys, community corrections, social workers and treatment service professionals.” This multi-disciplinary approach creates a balanced approach for treatment that includes taking into account, public safety, client motivation and progress towards goals, client’s treatment needs, and legal processes.

Massachusetts has been making progress towards adopting this type of criminal justice reform that gives needed treatment instead of jail time to people caught up in the criminal justice system. Massachusetts currently has 22 drug courts, three juvenile drug courts, three mental health courts, one homeless court, and three veteran’s treatment courts. That’s about half of the amount of drug and other specialty courts they have in other states of a similar population. Specialty courts are gaining momentum in Massachusetts though and more courts are in the works, and have received great support from state representatives, judges, and others.

"Celina-ohio-county-courthouse". Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons (Photo Credit)
“Celina-ohio-county-courthouse”. Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons (Photo Credit)

Do they work? This is an important question, as many great ideas and policies falter in practice.  According to statistics, drug courts are at least showing some favorable results. They report that nationwide, 75% of drug court participants remain arrest free after two years. Long-term studies show that reduction in crime can last from 3-14 years. Most importantly, drug court participants are six times more likely to remain in treatment long enough to get the help they need, which is something our current prison system does not offer.

These courts are relatively new, and more research is needed to show what kind of results these courts are having in keeping crime down, and people out of prison, as well as where helpful tweaks in the policies and practices of these courts are needed. One thing is for sure; they are a much needed and welcome source of reform in a very broken system. Hopefully, future laws and policy changes will continue in this direction.

Amy Gatlin is currently working as a graduate assistant for the Office of Government and External Affairs and Profile PicCommunity Impact as the Grants Coordinator.  She holds a BA in Psychology from the University of Minnesota Duluth and is in her final year of her Master’s Program at Wheelock College in Social Work.  She hopes to engage in international work with her social work degree upon graduation as well as advocating for justice reform for juvenile populations and adults.