Special courts are effective with special treatment
Some Michigan counties have veterans courts. Some counties have mental health courts. Some have sober courts for drunken drivers. And some have drug abuse courts. The specialty courts, as they are called, go beyond the conviction and sentencing of offenders to offer a comprehensive system or rewards and punishments, threats and rehabilitation, support and guidance.
According to data from the state courts system, they are remarkably effective at addressing the underlying problems that cause certain people — such as those with mental health or substance use issues — to commit crimes, and to find a future that doesn’t include return visits to the criminal justice system.
St. Clair County has one of the mental health courts — perhaps the original mental health court. Probate Judge John Tomlinson works with the law enforcement system and St. Clair County Community Mental Health to keep offenders out of jail and in treatment.
“The idea was to avoid recidivism for folks who are having mental health issues (and to) address what was causing them to come back into the system,” Tomlinson told us in April. “That has really happened.”
At the time, we marveled that not every county has a similar court. Perhaps we shouldn’t have.
Not every county is uniform in needing or wanting a mental health court. And, we learned this week, the actual specialty courts aren’t uniform across the counties that are utilizing them.
The State Court Administrative Office suggests policies and procedures for the courts. It is up to the individual specialty courts to adopt the recommended policies.
Legislation passed by the state Senate this week would require the State Court Administrative Office to certify the specialty courts. The courts would have to follow state-mandated policies and procedures. Bill sponsors say consistent rules and standards would make the courts more effective.
There may be a certain logic to that. Criminal courts have consistent, rigid rules that must be followed in every case. The problem-solving courts, though, have grown up to address local issues, which is why some places have them and some don’t. Outside-the-box flexibility and thinking is what makes them work. Boxing them in with the same top-down rules could ruin that.