We have spoken at length about our support for the specialty courts in the Massachusetts court system, having discussed the Mental Health Court, Homeless Court, and new Suffolk County Veterans Treatment Court and the benefits they provide. These courts can change the way we approach certain populations in the administration of justice and ensure a system that is not needlessly punitive, but rather rehabilitative.
Specialty courts – which so far include the Mental Health Court, Homeless Court, Drug Court, Veterans Treatment Court – are still a relatively new development in Massachusetts, and there is a great deal to learn about them. Our trips to different sessions of the courts have given us some background on their processes, but we were curious to learn more about the administrative support and development that goes into them. Sheila Casey, the Specialty Court Administrator, and Georgia Critsley, the new Trial Court Manager of Intergovernmental Relations, joined us at our monthly governing Council meeting to shed more light on the specialty courts and how recently released budget numbers could affect them.
Here are a few facts that we learned during the discussion:
- Specialty courts and their different sessions across the state have been started by judges with a particular interest in adapting the way they address certain cases that they have seen come through their courtrooms. They are trained in how to properly handle the issues, including peer training by colleagues.
- We were aware that the specialty court probation programs take place over an extended period; what we did not realize was that they can last up to two years, making sure that treatment is effective and contributing to the low rates of recidivism from participants.
- The reactions and relationships to the specialty courts have historically been mixed. However, data proving the efficacy of specialty courts has amassed, and now there is widespread support for expanding the sessions of the specialty courts.
- While these post-adjudication defendants on probation sign up for the specialty court sessions of their own volition, they usually have high sentences hanging over their heads. Specialty courts focus on defendants who are most at risk of recidivism and most in need of help either for substance abuse or mental health issues. This tactic of effectively ‘forcing’ the otherwise disinterested defendants into rehabilitative programs has proven astoundingly effective in confronting addiction: 75 percent of graduates are arrest-free 2 years out of the programs.
This last statistic alone is reason enough to expand the specialty court presence across the state. At this time, there are 26 specialty court sessions – that is, different iterations of Mental Health, Drug, Homeless, and Veterans Treatment courts – in the state. The Trial Court is hoping to open 8 more sessions per year over the next 3 years, bringing the total number up to 50 specialty court sessions by 2017. With this widespread system in place, the specialty courts can work across the state to avoid long-term incarceration and instead rehabilitate members of our society.
The key to this plan is in the funding of the specialty courts. In response to the Trial Court’s request for $2.7 million to fund specialty courts, both the House and Senate budgeted just about the same amount of money – the House proposed $2.7 million and the Senate’s proposal included $3 million. While the final budget number for the entire judiciary is still unknown, it’s clear that specialty courts are as important to the legislature as they are to the courts and to us. The amount of good that these specialty courts do is immeasurable to the defendants who enter the programs and through them are able to reach sobriety and reform. In light of their struggles with substance abuse and mental health difficulties, justice is best served in courts that can take these matters more closely into account.
Moreover, the increasing numbers of specialty courts reflect a greater trend in the legal world of specializing in a number of important areas to address the complexity of the law and social issues. It is important that the courts have realized that it is necessary to do the same thing. As we have said before, ‘one size does not fit all’ when it comes to our state’s justice system.