An Analysis of Problem-Solving Court Programs

An Analysis of Problem-Solving Court Programs

Policymakers, researchers, and legal practitioners should look beyond the name designation of the court and instead focus more on the quality and consistency of program implementation across specialized court programs (SCPs) more generally when deciding what type of program will best serve offenders and the court community. This is the bottom line of a recently published article in Law and Human Behavior. Below is a summary of the research and findings as well as a translation of this research into practice.

Featured Article | Law and Human Behavior | 2019, Vol. 43, No. 3, 278-289

A Drug Court by Any Other Name? An Analysis of Problem-Solving Court Programs


Kimberly A. Kaiser, University of Mississippi
Kirby Rhodes, University of Mississippi


Beginning with the original drug court model, specialized court programs (SCPs) have expanded to address a variety of offense-related problems, such as domestic violence courts, mental health courts, veteran courts, and homeless courts. To date, there has been no empirical assessment as to whether these types of court programs share similar program characteristics with the drug court model. To address this gap, we used data from the 2012 Census of Problem-Solving Courts of 2,793 problem-solving court programs in the United States to examine differences between drug courts and other court types. We used multinomial logistic regression to analyze program-level characteristics between SCPs and drug courts. SCPs were similar on several key characteristics to drug courts, such as specialization and services, staff training, and procedures. Where SCPs tend to differ were whether felony offenders were allowed, charges dismissed after program completion, and participants entering the program post-adjudication. Though they may go by different names, many SCPs continue to rely on the original drug court model. Future research within the drug court paradigm should consider expanding to other types of SCPs to provide more comprehensive knowledge on the “black box” of problem-solving courts and how courts can more effectively implement court programs.


problem-solving courts, specialized courts, therapeutic jurisprudence, program fidelity, drug courts, veteran courts, mental health courts

Summary of the Research

“Since the first drug court in 1989, the use of specialized court programs (SCPs)—also known as problem-solving courts—has grown dramatically in number and variety across the nation. These programs have grown in number and also increased in type, including drug courts, mental health courts, and family, veteran, and domestic violence courts, among many others. While drug courts remain the most common, this model has extended beyond drug addiction to address the multiple needs of offender populations—such as juveniles, veterans, or homeless offenders. The expansion of SCPs over the past decades has provided a means through which the court system can more directly target and provide services for underlying conditions that may be linked to criminal behavior” (p. 278).

“The research on drug courts demonstrates that program participants tend to have better outcomes and less recidivism than those in the traditional criminal court system. While studies may define program success in different ways, such as abstinence from drug use and general offending recidivism, they have suggested that drug courts are at least modestly effective. Other types of SCPs have seen similar successes, such as mental health courts and veteran courts. Yet not all SCPs are equally effective, and variations in program characteristics may partially explain differences in effectiveness?” (p. 278).

“Given the overall promise of the model, it is not surprising that it has led to the development of additional programs that address the wide range of problems faced by individuals in the criminal justice system. As noted by Kaiser and Holtfreter (2016), however, this expansion ‘has continued without much consideration of whether the drug court model is appropriate to these other populations’ (p. 2). There has yet to be an empirical assessment as to whether these types of court programs share similar program characteristics to drug courts. Understanding how closely SCPs adhere to the drug court model can enhance program fidelity, provide effective implementation, and better inform practitioners and policymakers whether to continue to support the expansion of this model to more diverse offender populations beyond drug addiction or to better serve those with multiple risk factors. It is therefore the purpose of this study to provide an analytic comparison of types of SPCs and drug courts” (p. 279).

“The purpose of this study was to use multinomial logistic regression to assess what characteristics distinguish other SCPs from the original drug court model. Using data from the 2012 Census of Problem-Solving Courts, this study evaluated which program-level characteristics predict classification of SCP type compared to drug courts. In line with existing theory underlying SCPs and because SCPs commonly address overlapping criminogenic needs, we expected that there would be more similarities across SCP types than dissimilarities. This study informs whether SCPs are being implemented with fidelity to the original program model, and the information gained may provide a more comprehensive review of the problem solving court paradigm” (p. 280).

“[N]o statistically significant differences between various court types and adult drug courts were observed across 10 of the 18 covariates in the model. Beyond their adherence to the basic definition of problem-solving courts (i.e., operating within the judiciary, dedicated judicial officers, using a therapeutic jurisprudence approach), SCPs are similar to adult drug courts on a variety of program-level characteristics, such as factors related to staff characteristics, program specialization, and program procedures— including the use of case management, having a mission statement, and having an operations manual, among others. This finding provides further support for a unified theoretical foundation for problem-solving courts” (p. 286).

“Overall, the findings of the present study suggest relative uniformity within the problem-solving court model. This is an important finding as it is likely that the number of SCPs will continue to grow, and the varieties of these types of programs will continue to broaden to new areas and offender needs. New and current SCPs should continue to evaluate how consistently they adhere to the guidelines of the problem-solving court approach and principles of effective intervention. Much more work is needed to fully understand whether this program model is universally effective and what characteristics are associated with program success. Future research should examine whether adherence to the problem” (p. 287).

Translating Research into Practice

“The search for similarities in SCP models to identify a shared foundation offers potential implications for future research. It also provides a future guide to the development and refinement of SCP programs to practitioners and policymakers by providing consensus on what SCP programs generally entail. The original drug court model was established to address the underlying problem of drug addiction that resulted in many people being sentenced to incarceration. The implication that this model can also be applied to other underlying problems—such as mental illness and life circumstances—provides decision makers with an approach that can better address the criminogenic needs of offenders without relying on the overburdened prison system” (p. 286).

“These consistencies may also demonstrate program adherence to the problem-solving court model, indicating program fidelity—a key component of program evaluation. According to Castellano (2011), qualities of problem-solving court programs include the use of court monitoring, individualized treatment plans to address life circumstances of each participant, and having a dedicated team of a diverse set of actors. The findings of this study suggest that all types of SCPs are, in general, equally likely to adhere to these particular qualities as drug courts. Where program types tend to differ are whether the court program allows felony offenses, results in case dismissal, has a number of disqualifying factors, and permits entry postplea agreement. Several of these aspects also tend to be areas of contention among scholars of problem-solving courts and effective correctional treatment strategies. For example, our finding that SCP types differ from drug courts in whether they allow felony offenses and other exclusion restrictions is something that has been discussed within the literature. Most research suggests that targeting higher risk offenders for treatment may provide the biggest impact in reducing recidivism” (p. 286).

Other Interesting Tidbits for Researchers and Clinicians

“Past research suggests that these findings may hold important implications for program success. In their meta-analysis, Mitchell and colleagues (2012) found that drug courts that dismissed charges upon graduation had a significant effect on reducing drug recidivism. Conversely, however, the review by Shaffer (2011) did not find similarly significant results for the effects of case dismissal. The study by Shaffer found that programs that used postplea adjudication models were less effective than those that used preadjudication program entry. It is possible that the differences in program characteristics observed between program types suggest adherence to unique program models, but it is also possible that these represent inconsistency in adherence to the problem-solving court model. As with all treatment programs, model fidelity can vary between programs and can be an important factor in effectiveness. While the current study assessed differences in these program characteristics, we do not address whether these differences explain variation in program success across SCP types. That is a question for future study” (p. 286).

“Second, the results from this study indicate that, regardless of program type, many SCPs address multiple key problems and offer a variety of services to program participants. These SCPs are not, in fact, entirely specialized but offer a comprehensive and individualized strategy to address various criminogenic needs. This is an area where further study is needed. Perhaps it would be best to abandon the use of the term specialized court programs altogether and fully embrace the broad problem-solving capability of this program model to address the wide variety of problems faced by individuals who enter the criminal justice system. Although we were unable to assess whether specialized or targeted treatment of a single problem is related to successful reductions in recidivism or program compliance, this would seem antithetical to the broad body of literature on offender generalization of offending” (p. 286).

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