Problem-Solving Courts and Perceptions of Procedural Fairness   1 comment

In my blog post last week I looked at the way in which serving on a trial jury is associated with a strong perception that trial courts decide cases in a procedurally fair manner.  Former jurors report coming away from jury service holding a higher level of trust and confidence in the courts than they had beforehand.

Can we identify other court experiences that are associated with strong perceptions of experiencing procedural fairness? Available research points to problem solving courts as the most promising candidate. Defendants in drug treatment courts (DTC) report experiencing higher levels of procedural fairness than do comparable groups of defendants processed on the same kinds of charges through traditional criminal courts. The available research identifies that the relative advantage in defendant perceptions of procedural fairness is a key, and perhaps the primary, reason why drug court defendants have lower recidivism rates than their counterparts in traditional courts. One relevant study is a DTC evaluation conducted by prominent criminologist Denise Gottfredson in the criminal courts of Baltimore, Maryland. Drug treatment court-eligible defendants were randomly assigned either to the DTC or to the traditional court. DTC defendants were less likely to re-offend: “More specifically, [the study] suggests that the DTC program, especially the judicial hearings, contributes to an offender’s perception of fairness and due process, thereby increasing his or her willingness to fulfill his or her part of the negotiated DTC agreement.” (Source: D. Gottfredson et al., How drug treatment courts work: an analysis of mediators, Journal of Research in Crime and Delinquency, 2007, p. 28).

The recently concluded Multi-Site Adult Drug Court Evaluation supports the explanation for the lower recidivism rate associated with DTCs put forward by Gottfredson and her colleagues. Although labeled”attitude to the judge,” and associated by the report writers with the field of “Therapeutic Jurisprudence,” the scale is based on DTCs’ perceptions of the “judges competence, impartiality and concern for their [defendants] general well-being.”  The report concludes that “the most striking finding in this research is the power of the judge, and judicial interactions with the offenders, to promote desistance.” (Source: Chapter 6, by John Roman et al., “How do Drug Courts Work?”, pp. 94-120). That sounds like a procedural fairness effect.

These findings from research on drug courts appear to be generalizable to at least some of the other types of problem-solving courts. Research conducted by the Center for Court Innovation in community courts  and in housing courts  also finds that specialized problem-solving courts are viewed as more procedurally fair by litigants than are traditional court dockets that process similar cases.  Thus far, however, only drug treatment courts provide solid evidence that there is a direct link between enhanced perceptions of procedural fairness and a reduction in recidivism and greater compliance with court orders.

Generally, however, the impact of direct experience with the courts is more hit or miss for civil litigants and criminal defendants. In fact, the bulk of research suggests that court experience is as likely to diminish as it is to increase trust and confidence in the courts. The available research shows that procedural fairness is least likely to be perceived in high volume courts, with defendants in traffic court, on average, reporting the lowest levels of procedural fairness and of trust and confidence in the courts. (See, for example: D. Rottman, Trust and Confidence in the California Courts: Findings and Recommendations, Judicial Council of California, 2005)

My next blog post will consider what lessons we can draw from the evidence available on what is conducive to high and what to low levels of perceived procedural fairness.

David Rottman

Posted April 30, 2012 by drottman1 in Courts

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One response to “Problem-Solving Courts and Perceptions of Procedural Fairness

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  1. I love it when people get together and share ideas. Great blog, continue the good work!

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