As Specialty Courts Spread, the Jury Stays Out

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Drug courts. Truancy courts. Girls’ courts. Mental health courts.

Believing that traditional juvenile courts aren’t enough, juvenile justice reformers have created a bevy of specialty courts in recent years, and more may be on the way. The U.S. Justice Department has poured at least $23 million in the past three years into helping localities establish and operate them, with local government adding uncounted millions of dollars of their own.

“In some respects these courts harken back to days of old when juvenile courts tried to deal with youths’ problems, as opposed to just treating them as young criminals,” says Judge Dale Koch of Portland, Ore., president of the National Council of Juvenile and Family Court Judges. “I’m encouraged that courts are trying these kinds of things.”

But do they make a difference?

The courts are so new that thorough evaluations are meager so far. Their advocates insist that research that has been done shows promising results in getting youth to commit fewer crimes and in saving government money.

The courts try to deal with a growing dilemma: Although juvenile judges traditionally have tried to focus more on individualized treatment than do courts handling adult cases, they hear many of the same criticisms as do judges in adult courts. These include heavy caseloads that subject accused delinquents to assembly-line justice, infrequent court appearances, and scant attention to finding and delivering treatment that might head off a revolving door of arrests and confinement.

Case filings have declined as youth crime rates have fallen in recent years, but a recent federal report says the delinquency caseload as of 2002 was 1.6 million nationwide, well above the total of the early 1990s.

In step the specialty courts, which vary widely in their details but share a theme: getting judges much more involved in working out solutions for the teens who appear before them. That means not only judging guilt or innocence and sending the teens off to a probation officer, but discussing or grappling with their progress and challenges in detail at frequent court sessions.

While many judges are enthusiastic about the new approaches, some are more cautious. Michael Town, a Honolulu trial judge since 1979 who formerly presided over a family court, says that what he calls “boutique” courts “must be approached very cautiously.” The specialty courts tend to be “personality-driven” by aggressive judges, he says. When they get burned out with “compassion fatigue,” their successors may not be able to sustain the momentum.

Here is a look at how some of the courts operate, and what research says about their impact. This report focuses on adult-run efforts in juvenile courts; it does not include “teen courts,” which are presided over by youth and occur in various settings, including outside of juvenile court.

Drug Courts

By the numbers, juvenile drug courts lead the field, having spread widely since the first drug court for adults was set up in Miami in 1989. As in the adult version, the primary idea in the juvenile drug courts is to get youths into treatment fast and monitor them closely.

Judges are much more actively involved in drug courts than they traditionally have been in delinquency cases. They coordinate services and drug tests and cajole young drug abusers into changing their behavior.

“The social dynamics of the courtroom may be especially important when they support ‘procedural justice,’ or the visible signs of fairness that encourage offenders to accept the court process and to abide by its rules,” says Jeffrey A. Butts, a research fellow at the Chapin Hall Center for Children of the University of Chicago. Butts led a major evaluation of juvenile drug courts. (“Juvenile Drug Courts and Teen Substance Abuse,” Urban Institute Press, 2004.)

Some 424 of the juvenile courts have sprung up around the country in the past decade and 107 are in the planning stages, says the federally funded Drug Court Clearinghouse at American University in Washington. The clearinghouse counts nearly 1,000 adult drug courts.

Drug treatment long has been hampered by high failure rates, but juvenile drug courts anecdotally claim a good success rate.

A leading advocate is Judge Jose Rodriguez of Orlando, Fla., who says that by involving drug abusers’ family members and going beyond traditional counseling techniques, juvenile drug courts have proved their worth. He says the Orlando court has had a success rate of more than 70 percent, compared with a recidivism rate in traditional courts of well above 50 percent.

Evaluations of the program are at least five years old.

While acknowledging the need for more research, Rodriguez says the level of involvement by the presiding judge is an “incredible variable.” That means the model might be less important than the person who carries it out.

“A lot will depend on the charisma of the judge,” Rodriguez says. “I don’t know if you can mea-
sure that.”

In 2004, The Urban Institute’s John Roman and Christine DeStefano concluded that “evidence of drug courts on key outcomes (such as recidivism and drug use) remains largely anecdotal.” Their research was based largely on an examination of six courts: in Charleston, S.C.; Dayton, Ohio; Jersey City, N.J.; Las Cruces, N.M.; Missoula, Mont.; and Orlando.

What Butts calls the most elaborate evaluation involving juvenile drug courts so far, led by Scott Henggeler of the Medical University of South Carolina, concluded that the specialized courts were more effective, but mainly when multi-systemic therapy was included.

A study of a juvenile drug court in Harford County, Md., released last month, found that juvenile drug court participants had 36 percent fewer juvenile and adult arrests and 59 percent fewer days on probation or parole than did nonparticipants. The study, by NPC Research of Portland, Ore., also concluded that juvenile drug court outcomes – including re-arrests, incarceration and probation – cost 60 percent less per juvenile than for those not in drug court.

Recognizing the need for more research, the Justice Department’s Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention issued a solicitation in July for another round.


Many juvenile courts have long maintained truancy dockets that have recorded only modest success.

Two judges are widely credited with leading a drive for a more concentrated approach to the problem: Jeremiah S. Jeremiah of Providence, R.I., and Joan Byer of Louisville, Ky.

Byer says one key to her six-year-old project is to make truancy “a community issue” by getting schools, social workers and mental health treatment agencies more involved in solving teens’ problems. The program concentrates on rewarding truants for any success they have in overcoming their difficulties. A punitive approach that humiliates and isolates the truant usually does not help, she says.

In the Rhode Island program, begun in 1999 and expanded to 33 communities statewide, the truancy court is convened in schools. Youths who chose to participate in a monitoring program instead of going through a traditional trial process are subjected to weekly court monitoring of academic performance, attendance and behavioral problems. Students are summoned out of class for 15 or 20 minutes for the court review sessions.

Between 2,200 and 2,500 Rhode Island youths pass through the truancy court programs each year, says project Director Ronald Pagliarini. An evaluation by Fayneese Miller of Brown University found that 70 percent of participants have increased their school attendance and 65 percent raised their average grades. The program costs the state about $1 million annually, some of which is recovered through higher attendance that brings more funding under the federal No Child Left Behind law.

Pagliarini says quick court action is one reason for the program’s success. A typical proceeding in the old days of truancy courts would involve a youth being ordered to return to court in several months. In Rhode Island, the interval now is two weeks or less.

“If a judge in October told a kid to come back Nov. 30, it might sound to the kid like the year 2020,” Pagliarini says. “Now we say, ‘Come back Tuesday.’ That’s right around the corner.”

Pagliarini, vice president of the National Truancy Prevention Association, estimates that perhaps a few dozen programs nationwide emulate the Rhode Island and Kentucky approaches. The truancy court movement is too new to have produced many thorough evaluations, but early evidence is that the new programs are cost-effective, says Heather MacGillivary of the Colorado Foundation for Families and Children, which is evaluating several truancy reduction efforts for the U.S. Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention.

“Traditional courts are very costly,” she says, with “a lot of professionals in the room whose time is expensive.”

Funding limitations have meant that not all programs have thrived. In St. Louis County, the suburban area west of St. Louis, 13 school districts and other agencies collaborated on a truancy court program that involved robed judges holding court in schools at 7:30 a.m. An evaluation by the University of Missouri at St. Louis showed that from 2001 to 2004, 60 percent of students who took part in the program improved their attendance, reducing absences by an average of 44 percent.

Although each school district was asked to contribute only a few thousand dollars per year to supplement a state grant, most districts dropped the program after the state money ended this year. Now only the school district that originated the project, Ferguson-Florissant, still is working with the court.

Coordinating Judge Michael Burton of the St. Louis County Circuit Court remains enthusiastic about the concept. Officials are subjecting youths to a program that spans the school year and pays more attention to parents. Burton says that in many truancy cases, “it’s the parents who are the problem. Some have horrendous parenting skills.”


Numerous institutions are trying to provide more services geared toward girls, from schools to juvenile detention facilities.

One reason for that trend in juvenile justice is that girls are being charged with a growing percentage of juvenile offenses. In Hawaii, that share rose to more than 40 percent by 2003, up from 33.7 percent 12 years earlier.

Since the fall of 2004, a family court in Oahu has been experimenting with sending moderate- to high-risk girls to their own court in the belief that “girls in the juvenile justice system have special needs that are not being met by a system traditionally designed for boys,” says the court’s website. Experts say female offenders are more likely than boys to have been victims of sexual abuse and to experience depression or low self-esteem; the courts try to deal with those histories.

Every five weeks, Family Court Judge Karen Radius convenes a court session in which accused girls, their families, probation officers and others review each case. Radius says this process “has proven to be a particularly effective tool in both inducing compliance and behavioral changes … as well as providing a method of praising the girls.”

Radius says the court was created because “our normal approach to girls wasn’t working.” She says the gender-specific themes in the program “maximize girls’ strengths and introduce them to the possibilities of better education and employment.”

An evaluation completed this year by criminologist Lisa Pasko of the University of Denver found that the court had reduced overall recidivism among its participants by 47 percent, as measured within six months of the girls’ completion of the program. That included an 80 percent drop in runaway incidents. Girls in the program spent an average of about 28 fewer days in secure confinement than did those who went through the usual family court procedure.

The study was small, however: It involved 24 girls, 12 who took part in the girls’ court and 12 who went through the usual juvenile justice process. The only disappointment was that probation violations did not decrease dramatically, possibly because the girls and the probation officers were readjusting to the officers’ new role of serving as “understanding advocates,” Pasko said.

Court officials say they will seek funds to keep the girls’ court going after a three-year, $900,000 grant from the U.S. Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention runs out at the end of 2007.

Only a handful of similar programs operate elsewhere. One is Program for the Empowerment of Girls, started in 2004 by Juvenile Court Judge John Romero in Albuquerque, N.M. The intensive probation effort lasts for 16 to 20 weeks, promising treatment and “support for the family as a unit.” Parental participation is required.

Romero says that about 10 girls are in the program at any time, and that each participant has a history of violence as a victim, witness or offender. The process includes daily check-ins with probation officers, court sessions every week and counseling at least every two weeks.

The judge cites cases of girls who have stayed out of trouble after taking part, but he says the program is too new to have been evaluated. The court has enlisted the cooperation of various government agencies and has not had to seek special funding.

Even More ...

Specialized courts sometimes are set up in response to an ad hoc problem. Last summer, Las Vegas set up a Curfew Court to handle a surge of gang problems at a public housing complex. Police and prosecutors brought in curfew violators who otherwise would have been ignored if they were not already on probation or parole. Most of the several dozen cases were resolved when the youths and their parents or guardians came to court.

A public defender complained about officials “targeting this low-income neighborhood,” reported the Las Vegas Sun. A prosecutor called the program and its low penalties (typically a $110 fine) a way “to educate these people without hurting them.”

Some of the new specialized courts do not limit their dockets to a particular kind of crime, but apply certain techniques to a selected group of offenders. One of these is the Juvenile Accountability Court in New York City’s Bronx borough, now in its fourth year. The court functions as an intensive probation supervision program that is closely overseen by a judge.

Youths must see a judge every six to eight weeks in a formal hearing with prosecutors and defense attorneys to review progress in treatment, education or work. The program aims at serving 45 youths each year, most of whom have mental health problems. Most are low-level offenders, but if they were not in the program, they most likely would be institutionalized and might not have access to needed services.

No formal evaluation has been completed; officials report anecdotal success. “I see the transformations,” says Luisa Taveras, who completed a stint as the program’s director in October. She says that many of the youths were chronic truants in need of family counseling and mental treatment who are “now on track” after working closely with probation officers.

The $160,000 in annual funding comes from three foundations and the City Council.

The accountability court is one of several specialized courts for juveniles spearheaded by the New York City-based Center for Court Innovation. The center has set up community courts in Harlem and in the Red Hook area of Brooklyn that also use the formula of close judicial supervision and locally based services to deal with lower-level offenses. Alfred Siegel, who oversees the program, reports “greater participation by parents, greater involvement by young people in school and less re-offending.” A formal in-house evaluation is in progress.

Because each of the center’s court programs for juveniles involves fewer than 100 cases a year, no one can argue that the juvenile justice system has been revolutionized.

With juvenile confinement costs sometimes reaching $150,000 a year per youth, “the potential savings are astronomical” if the concept of specialty courts spreads, Siegel says. But it will take more years of experimenting and proving their worth before such courts can take hold on a wide scale.


Jeffrey A. Butts, Research Fellow
Chapin Hall Center for Children
Chicago, Ill.
(773) 753-5900

Ronald Pagliarini, Vice President
National Truancy Prevention Association
Washington, D.C.
(202) 904-2390,

Drug Court Clearinghouse American University
Washington, D.C.
(202) 885-2875,

National Council of Juvenile and Family Court Judges
Reno, Nev.
(775) 784-6012,

National Drug Court Institute
Alexandria, Va.
(703) 575-9400,