Monday, May 3, 2010

Specialty Courts - An Alternative Route to Justice in Texas

It has been a few weeks since we've heard from one of our prosecutor contributors.  I know their caseload keeps them quite busy and I appreciate all of their contributions.  Here's an overview of Specialty Courts in Texas by one of our prosecutors. 

Specialty Courts - Does your jurisdiction have them? As populations grow, so do their crime rates. One of the hottest trends to spread across the state are specialty courts. These “courts” are used to handle certain types of cases and relieve the caseload of district and county courts. I placed that term in quotes, because these aren’t the typical courts we think of. Yes, there are judges, prosecutors, and defense attorneys involved, but the normal procedural rigor does not exist. Rather, it is a much more practical, common-sense method, designed to dispose of cases efficiently.

The four common types of specialty courts geared toward criminal law are: Drug Court, DWI Court, Re-entry Court, and Mental Health Court. Depending on your jurisdiction, the operating procedures and names of these courts will vary. I will be preface by telling you to contact your local courts administration to find whether these types of courts exist in your jurisdiction and what the rules are for each.  What follows is a brief overview of the four courts mentioned above.

Primarily, with all specialty courts, there will be a panel consisting of a judge, a prosecutor, a defense attorney, probation officers and other various actors like MHMR representatives, CRTC or SAFP representatives and maybe even community leaders who volunteer their time to allow an avenue of resources for the court it wouldn’t have otherwise. The latter can provide information on local employment and housing for the participants.

This panel convenes before every court meeting and conducts a round-table discussion of the participants. The files of each participant are maintained by their case worker (who will usually be their probation officer) and at this briefing they provide details on the status of the participant like their employment situation, latest urinalysis results, or progress in counseling. The group will discuss each participant individually and make suggestions as to how to best handle their current situation. Sometimes, the conclusion might be that the participant needs to be praised for his efforts. Other times, the participant may need to be sanctioned for violations. After the briefing, the court-meeting is held where the participants are each addressed by the judge. The judge will speak briefly with the participant. Then, each defendant will be encouraged, either through discipline or a pat on the back.

The judge, at first glance, would seem to have the most important role because he is the one who presides over the process. He is the one who has the ability to sanction participants for violations of the rules of the court. Primarily, sanctions are handled civilly through contempt of court. Don’t get overly confused by this part. Participants who enter these courts must abide by the rules and terms given them by the court. If he fails to do so, the judge has the ability to sanction the participant to jail time through contempt of court.

The case worker’s role is equally as important. The panel depends on her to provide the information needed to determine what steps need to be taken to ensure the best outcome for the participant. Their relationship with the participant is obviously vital in maintaining the participant’s motivation.

The defense attorney participates by providing any collateral legal assistance needed by the participant. He does not represent the participants in their actual cases, but can help in guiding the participant in various legal situations like obtaining a driver’s license or valid ID card. He also serves as a liaison to the defense bar when they have questions about the court and its processes.

Ultimately, however, the prosecutor has the final say in whether the state will pursue a motion to revoke or filing the case (this depends on the court and its structure – see more on this later on.) The panel may feel one way, but the prosecutor still maintains her ability to do what she feels is in the best interest of the state. Most prosecutors assigned to these courts do so because they believe it works. Thus, most prosecutors will approach these courts with a “team” mentality and facilitate a cooperative effort by the panel.

The goal with these courts is to find ways to rehabilitate offenders who have the potential of being productive citizens in our communities. Rather than taking a hard-line approach to handling the rise in criminal caseloads, this effort is being pushed because it provides results-based successes. Not just keeping somebody out of trouble for a few months, but actually altering their behaviors to conform with acceptable societal standards for the rest of their lives.

As these specialty courts continue to grow, so will the types used to address different areas of criminal law. As of now, I’m familiar with the following four and will discuss each briefly.

Drug Court:

Primarily deals with drug users who haven’t yet established a criminal record. These are your first-time felony offenders and their cases very from Possession < 1 gram cases to Credit Card abuse cases. These are the folks who obviously have a drug problem. Depending on your jurisdiction (and again, please contact your Courts Administration office) this court will either put offenders in Drug Court as a term and condition of their probation (formal or deferred) or the prosecution will allow the person to participate in the program pre-filing (if the pre-filing method is used, after the offender completes the program, his case is dismissed.)

DWI Court:

This court handles defendants whose DWI occurrences (note more than one) do not rise to the felony level (DWI 3rd or more.) DWI Court, for the most part, sees those offenders who have more than one DWI pending or are on probation for DWI or DWI – 2nd and have failed to comply with the terms and conditions of their probations. Examples would include someone who has been arrested for multiple DWI’s during a short period of time or someone who is on probation and has picked up a new DWI or failed to abstain from alcohol use. The goal here is to rehabilitate these individuals before they reach the felony level. In exchange for not having to go the county jail for a lengthy period of time, these folks participate in this rigorous, lengthy specialty court where they receive more attention than they would than just being on probation.

Re-entry Court:

This court deals with drug and alcohol users who have agreed (either as a term and condition of their probation or as the result of a probation modification) to enter either a county rehabilitation program or SAFP (TDCJ.) Results have shown the probability of relapse is high upon their “re-entry” into society. This court’s purpose is to provide further structure to their lives so that relapse is avoided. The court increases the success rate of these individuals substantially by keeping a much closer eye on their progress. Instead of just having to report to their probation officer, each individual is carefully scrutinized by the panel and their progress or decline is continuously monitored. The goal is to ensure that the rehabilitation “sticks” (for lack of a better term) so that the participant doesn’t pick up further cases or relapse back into their addiction.

Mental Health Court:

This is probably the youngest of specialty courts and, for the most part, is still being established. This court deals with those individuals who have MHMR issues that affect their competency. This court allows criminal courts a way of keeping track of those cases where the defendant is being restored to competency or is in the process of having their competency reviewed. Instead of these cases falling into oblivion, the purpose is to bring them all together where they can be maintained with the same goal of being able to provide an effective resolution to each. Because these cases must be handled differently, this court provides that alternative method.

*Keep in mind, this court is obviously handled differently than the other three courts. Much of what is discussed here, is not applicable to Mental Health Courts. Again, contact your local courts administration for rules and guidelines.

The duration of these courts can vary. Some may last 12 to 24 months. Probations are often extended so that the individual can graduate from the program. That’s right, graduate. As the individual progresses through these programs they “phase” up. After they have completed all of their phases, they graduate. The idea is that upon graduation, these participants return to society changed. Changed so that their behaviors are modified and their ability to become productive members of society is stabilized.

As I’ve mentioned numerous times, please contact your local courts administration office to see whether these courts exist in your jurisdiction and what the rules are for each. Keep in mind, these courts are administered by each local jurisdiction. Therefore, there will be numerous variations from each jurisdiction. I hope I’ve provided enough information to spark your interest. I am by no means the authority on the specialty courts. There are numerous websites you can check out for further information. I’ve included a couple below. Remember, you may have a client who would benefit from these courts. Check into it. If your jurisdiction doesn’t have them, don’t be afraid to contact your courts administration office and ask why not? This may be a good time for the argument “everybody else is doing it!”