Monday, February 11, 2013

The scourge of specialty courts

Anyone charged with a crime is entitled to their day in court. They are entitled to a trial by jury. They are entitled to confront the witnesses against them. They are entitled to put on evidence in their behalf. They are entitled to remain silent.

Upwards of 90% of cases in Harris County are resolved short of trial. The cases are either dismissed or the defendant enters into a plea bargain agreement with the state.

The cases are resolved because an investigation by both the state and defense either point out fatal flaws in the state's case or provide more than enough incentive for the defendant to cut his losses. Of course I am leaving out those cases in which defendants who couldn't make bail plead out in order to get out of jail - but that's another story for another day.

This traditional model in which a case is subjected to the crucible of truth in which two opposing advocates test the evidence presented to the court at trial.

None of this applies, however, if you find yourself in a specialty court - whether that be drug court, DWI court, mental health court or veteran's court. None of those courts is designed with the adversarial process in mind. The entire purpose of those courts is to get a defendant to enter into either a plea agreement or a pretrial diversion agreement and subject himself to monitoring for an extended period of time.

I'm sure courts for those with eating disorders or for those who wet the bed when they were little will be here before we know it.

Forget all about that crucible of truth. The only way a defendant in a specialty court gets relief is if he 'fesses up to what the state says he did. Everyone's part of the same team. We're all in this together, you know. Supposedly this is for the benefit of the defendant so he or she can seek treatment.

But, if someone needs treatment for a mental health or addiction issue, why are we using a sledgehammer (the courts) instead of a scalpel (professionals) to fix the problem? In the real world treatment works in fits and starts. Folks tend to fall off the wagon every now and then on their way to recovery. Those episodes should be treated for what they are - part of the recovery process - and not as a reason for the criminal (in)justice system to get involved.

If we are being honest with ourselves we will admit that you don't treat mental illness in the criminal courthouse - much like you wouldn't conduct surgery in the middle of the courtroom.

If the goal is to treat those folks with addictions so that they can overcome those addictions, then they need to be in rehab or a similar setting. They need counseling and support in order to beat back their demons. They don't need a judge holding a sword over their head. Fear is not a good motivator. The best motivator is a desire to kick the addictive behavior. Treatment works best when the patient is there because he or she decides it's what they need to do.

As for those with mental health problems, they need psychological or psychiatric help. But that therapy can only be successful if the patient wants it to be. A person seeking treatment because they have to is less likely to be successful than a patient who's there because he wants treatment. Besides, if a person has a mental health issue that's so severe they need to be transferred to a mental health caseload - then we probably have a problem with the requisite intent to commit the crime.

Maybe there is a noble purpose behind this growing trend of specialty courts - but the reality on the ground is that they subvert our criminal (in)justice system by depriving the accused of their rightful day in court.

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