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Homelessness and the court system

June 9, 2020

On November 6, 2019, amid protest, the Las Vegas City Council voted to ban homeless people from sleeping on some city streets when beds are available at shelters. Violators of the ordinance face up to six months in jail or a fine up to $1000. Laws aimed at homelessness are nothing new. According to the National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty’s survey of 187 U.S. cities, there has been a 69% increase across the country in ordinances addressing where the homeless can sleep.  These laws lead to increased caseloads for both the civil and criminal dockets. Jurisdictions are addressing the increased caseload through the creation of problem-solving courts. The Conference of State Court Administrators (COSCA) released a policy paper on Problem-Solving Courts in the 21st Century to help define and navigate the creation of these specialty courts. This paper serves as a guide to Problem-Solving Courts.

What is a problem-solving court? They are not simply a treatment program. Beyond the obvious addition of having a judge, in these non-adversarial proceedings, judges have extended authorities over the offender, including the ability to immediately impose short-term incarceration for noncomplying offenders. COSCA identifies six core elements of problem-solving courts: 1) a specialized court docket or program, 2) involving judicial authority and ongoing supervision, 3) wherein there is team collaboration, community involvement, and information sharing, 4) along with specialized team expertise, 5) individual treatment and responses to risk and needs, and 6) the process must be therapeutic and rehabilitative. This 2017 paper produced by NCSC's Knowledge and Information Services division examines how these problem-solving court principles are appled in the context of homeless courts.

Once up and running, the courts should triage and target the services based on the level of risk and need, focusing on high-risk and high-need offenders who will benefit most from the effort. This requires screening all potential participants using a validated assessment risk and need assessment tool(s). As problem-solving courts can have a greater impact on those charged with higher level offenses, no group, including those with violent offenses, limited English skills, or mental health conditions, should be automatically eliminated. Since their conception in the 1980’s problem-solving courts have had tremendous success and serve an important role but require renewed focus.

Has your community implemented problem-solving courts? Follow the National Center for State Courts on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, or Pinterest and share your experiences!

For more information, contact Knowledge@ncsc.org or call 800-616-6164.