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What are Problem-Solving Courts in Pennsylvania?

In Pennsylvania, problem-solving courts are courts that handle offenders who struggle with mental health issues, behavioral health issues, and substance abuse. These courts address social problems such as poverty, homelessness, and abuse. While most courts focus on punitive measures, problem-solving courts work to foster recovery so that the conditions promoting criminal activity do not continue. Lawyers, public defenders, court officials, and other judicial officials work together to give offenders options and strategies that provide positive reinforcement. These courts offer treatment programs, rehabilitation programs, and other alternatives to being incarcerated or fined.

The Principles of Balanced and Restorative Justice can summarize the basic philosophy that problem-solving courts adhere to. These principles include:

  • Community Protection: ensuring that residents are safe in the community.
  • Accountability: when an individual commits a crime, that individual must give back to the victim of the crime and the community.
  • Competency Development: working to make sure that individuals who participate in these programs leave the system more responsible and capable than when they came in, so there is a chance for the party to be a productive member of society.
  • Individualization: establishing a unique treatment plan for each person based on the specific needs and information provided.

The Pennsylvania Commission supports Pennsylvania problem-solving courts on Crime and Delinquency (PCCD) at the county level. The PCCD works with Criminal Justice Advisory Boards (CJABs) to collaborate and plan further support for problem-solving courts in the state. The problem-solving courts in Pennsylvania are:

  • Veterans courts
  • Drug courts
  • DUI courts
  • Juvenile drug courts
  • Mental health courts

Veterans Court works with veterans who have violated the law. These courts aim to address underlying issues that may have led to the crime by offering volunteer mentor training or assigning probation officers who specialize in veterans’ issues. Many veterans may struggle with addiction, mental illness, mental disorders such as PTSD, and physical disability. Participants will be asked to speak before judges and officers in charge of the case regularly. Other veterans also give parties support as mentees.

Drug courts partner with criminal justice system functions to assist individuals with drug addictions to get out of the crime cycle. Drug courts have teams led by a judge and comprise a prosecutor, defense counsel, treatment provider, specialized probation officers, law enforcement, and court clerk. This team works together to maintain support and recover for the offender. The Pennsylvania Association of Drug Court Professionals (PADCP) founded the first drug court. This association often advocates for and funds drug courts across the state.

DUI courts focus on repeat DUI offenders and work closely with drug courts as the treatment model is similar. DUI courts’ goal is to offer treatment and support to offenders who have had multiple DUI charges that are often a result of addiction. Juvenile drug courts also work closely with and model treatment programs after drug courts. Juvenile drug courts offer abuse treatment, therapy, mental health services, primary care physicians, family counseling, education programs, and development programs. Parties who wish to find a juvenile drug court near them can look at the map offered by the Pennsylvania Courts website.

Mental health courts look at how mental illness contributes to crime. These courts offer services for mental health treatment in judicially supervised programs to deter individuals from committing crimes.

The qualifications for offenders to participate in problem-solving court-offered programs vary. Individuals at levels 3 or 4 of the Pennsylvania Sentencing Guidelines qualify for drug and alcohol treatment. These levels include serious offenders or individuals with multiple convictions, such as someone with multiple DUI charges. Response to these charges could involve incarceration paired with at least two other sanctions that support public safety and the health and recovery of the offender.

Offenders charged with drug or alcohol-related crimes will undergo a drug and alcohol assessment by professionals. The evaluation determines the best treatment for an individual based on dependency on the substance. Restrictive intermediate punishment, or sanctions, are placed on the individual. These sanctions do not need to follow standard sentencing guidelines as the penalty comes as a court order. Sanctions may include but are not limited to:

  • House arrest
  • Intensive supervision
  • Electronic monitoring
  • Community service
  • Drug testing
  • Drug and alcohol treatment
  • Fines and restitution

The success rate of problem-solving courts depends directly on the offenders’ relationship and partnership and the criminal justice system. Defendants who complete all programs and graduate may qualify to have charges dismissed or expunged, or penalties reduced. Pennsylvania court officials believe that diverting individuals into problem-solving courts instead of charging fines or sentencing offenders to jail and prison can reduce recidivism and repeat offenses, reduce jail and prison expenses, and support healing to improve lives.

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