Thursday, March 25, 2010

Excellent coverage of Travis County specialty courts

From Jordan Smith at the Austin Chronicle, check out this must-read series of stories on Travis County specialty courts:
A key criticism of specialty courts from the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers was voiced in the first bulleted article: "'Judges make poor social workers.' The money spent handling social issues in the courthouse would be better spent on front-end services that might make it less likely that these populations would actually end up in trouble with the law."

That's undoubtedly true. But we live in an era where legislative bodies have sought to impose criminal justice solutions on common social problems - from addiction to mental illness - that would be more wisely addressed in other arenas. Until that changes, specialty courts which rely on strong-probation best practices IMO will in many cases continue to get better results and provide better options for defendants and, ultimately, the state than the traditional adversarial system.

NACDL also fears that collaborative approaches favored in such courts in some ways diminish defendant's rights, and while I can see their point, on that question I think the jury's still out. After all, in a plea-mill type system such as ours where less than 2% of all cases go to trial, those adversarial rights aren't getting routinely exercised anyway.

Plus enforcing those rights via the criminal defense bar hasn't stopped the conviction of innocent people, mass incarceration or the erosion of civil liberties. The adversarial system is important, especially when the lawyers are competent and adequately resourced, but it's not the only possible model nor the end-all be-all of justice, nor has it always worked as well as one might hope. That's partially why, as Jordan Smith notes, "in Austin there are surprisingly few" critics of specialty courts: It's not like the old methods were working so damn great to begin with.

No comments: