Gotham Gazette

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Enhancing Fairness, Improving Outcomes: The Real Story of Problem-Solving Justice in New York

red hook community justice center

Red Hook Community Justice Center

Do problem-solving courts prevent New Yorkers from receiving their basic constitutional rights? Are defendants forced to make a Faustian bargain, pleading guilty to avoid incarceration when they should be challenging the legality of their arrest?

Steve Zeidman, a professor at CUNY School of Law, thinks so. In “The Treatment Court Cottage Industry & Its Unintended Consequence,” published Oct. 27 by Gotham Gazette, Zeidman argues that problem-solving courts create a “mindset of cooperation among all the institutional players” that prevent defendants from receiving their basic due process rights.

As an illustrative example, Zeidman tells a story (presented as an individual case but actually a composite) of a defendant named “CB” who is arrested for drug possession but wants to fight his case because he believes he was set up by an undercover police officer. Instead of receiving vigorous defense from his attorney, he is pressured to plead guilty in order to enter a drug treatment court. When CB decides instead to fight the legality of his arrest, he is left at Rikers Island, while his case proceeds. To Zeidman, this injustice is repeated again and again with problem-solving courts. “Countless defendants,” Zeidman writes, “stated that their lawyers simply urged them, forcefully, to plead guilty.”

Zeidman’s critique raises several important questions. Why have problem-solving courts proliferated in New York in recent years? What impact have they had? And do they in fact undermine the fairness of the criminal justice system?

The answer to the first question is simple: because they provide a better brand of justice.

Take drug courts, for example. These programs link addicted defendants to treatment in lieu of incarceration. Drug courts are among the most well-researched interventions in the history of American criminal justice reform. A national study underwritten by the U.S. Department of Justice found reduced drug use and crime among drug court participants when compared to defendants who went through regular case processing.

Nor are positive findings restricted to drug courts: researchers have also documented solid results from community courts, re-entry courts, mental health courts, and other alternative-to-incarceration programs. The human implications are enormous – thousands of New Yorkers given a second (and third and fourth) chance in life. Thanks to problem-solving courts, these individuals have been linked to potentially transformative interventions, including mental health counseling, employment training, and youth development programs.

As Vincent Schiraldi and Judith A. Greene noted recently, the number of New York City residents behind bars declined by 31,120 between 1996 and 2014, even as the city’s population increased by one million and crime rates continued to fall.

New York’s problem-solving courts played an important role in this remarkable success. New York’s drug courts demonstrated to policymakers that treatment instead of incarceration wasn't just notionally the right thing to do -- it actually makes a difference in the lives of defendants. That’s why the New York court system has made such a large institutional investment in these programs under the stewardship of the last three state chief judges. And that’s why Governor David Paterson, when announcing the reform of the Rockefeller Drug Laws, chose to do so at the Brooklyn Treatment Court. Closer to home, the Mayor’s Office has trumpeted the role that problem-solving programs have played in reducing the Rikers population.

In the aggregate, problem-solving courts have achieved demonstrably better outcomes for the clients that Zeidman purports to represent. But they have done more than just this. The research also suggests that they have actually improved the process as well, increasing defendant perceptions of fairness.

Many researchers are coming to the conclusion that the active ingredient in problem-solving courts, the element that makes them work better than conventional courts, is procedural justice.

Procedural justice is an idea, developed by Yale Law School professor Tom Tyler, that suggests that how defendants are treated is just as important, if not more, than the outcome of their cases. By treating defendants with dignity and respect – and communicating with them in plain language – courts can not only improve public perceptions of justice, they can promote voluntary compliance with the law.

This idea was tested most recently in Red Hook, Brooklyn, where my agency helped to develop the Red Hook Community Justice Center in partnership with the court system, the DA’s Office, and local defense attorneys. In Red Hook, we have altered the atmospherics of the criminal justice system in some fundamental ways: eliminating the bars in holding cells, shrinking the height of the judge’s bench so that he can look most defendants in the eyes, and improving signage so that court users understand how to navigate the building. The Red Hook judge, Alex Calabrese, also takes pains to ensure that defendants understand their obligations to the court and praises participants when they succeed in alternative programs.

Researchers from the National Center for State Courts conducted an independent evaluation of the Red Hook justice center, tracking participants in the program over the course of three years. It found that Red Hook reduced recidivism among both juvenile and adult defendants. It also found that Red Hook had improved perceptions of justice – defendants preferred Red Hook to the regular criminal court. This quote from a defendant was typical:

I went to Brooklyn Criminal Court before Red Hook, horrible place, horrible. They should do a tour there, just so people could see. I wouldn't wish that place on my enemy. Red Hook is 100 times better...[The Red Hook judge] allows you to speak...he likes to interact and get your opinion. I don't get the feeling that he's one of those judges that looks down on people. To me, he's fair, I'll put it that way. The court officers treat you like a person too, not like that other court over there. I learned that there's two different types of ways that courts treat people. You have these obnoxious goons and then you have those that look at you like, ‘ok, you made a mistake.’

Zeidman may be wrong on the merits, but he raises important warnings. Defense attorneys need to play an active role in the development and operation of problem-solving courts. And the structure of these courts should not exacerbate the coercive nature of the criminal justice system.

But make no mistake: if we want to continue to reduce the use of incarceration while preserving public safety, we don’t need to halt problem-solving courts – we need to spread the lessons from these programs as far and as wide as we possibly can.

Greg Berman is the director of the Center for Court Innovation. On Twitter @GregBerman50 and @courtinnovation.

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