Problem Solving Justice: Reducing Recidivism in Alaska

It seems that March was ages ago, especially as we look forward to the end of the semester. But, I want to bring us back to March, just for a moment. March is women’s history month and we didn’t get the chance to talk about that.

Women’s History month started out as a day in 1911, then became a week in 1978, and finally was designated as a whole month in 1987.  Each year, Women’s History Month has a theme.  This year’s theme was “Weaving the Stories of Women’s Lives.”  College campuses across the country have their own way of celebrating Women’s History Month.  Here at UAA, we invite guest speakers as a part of our participation in the event.

This year, the Legacy Speaker here at UAA for Women’s History Month was Judge Pamela Scott Washington.  Judge Washington was the first female African-American District Court Judge to ever serve the State of Alaska.

She grew up in Alaska and returned to the state as an attorney after completing her education in Arizona.  In March, Judge Washington spoke to an assemblage of UAA students and faculty about her passion: the law, justice, and solving problems.

“I’m sure all of us made lots of decisions today to solve problems.  I think it’s just the nature of man to try to solve problems,” she says.

Problem solving justice, Judge Washington explains, is about looking at the way issues are addressed in the legal system and figuring out ways to address the root causes rather than just the symptoms of a problem.

Washington is a Mental Health Court Judge.  What is a mental health court?  It’s one of several courts designed to solve problems within the judicial system.  These problem solving courts include courts for parental custody disputes and substance abuse.

Judge Washington explains that to solve problems, we have to think differently.  If we use the same thinking that led to the problem in the first place, we aren’t going to be able to find a workable solution.

She says “problem solving justice is really new thinking about old things, and old ways, and old problems.  The justice system is the mechanism that upholds the rule of law…and our courts provide a forum to resolve disputes, and to test and enforce laws, in a fair and rational manner.”

Our traditional modern justice system, Washington explains, relies on an adversarial system.

“Problem-solving justice,” Washington says “required basically a transformation from this traditional way of thinking, this adversarial process that is so knee-deep in how the justice system has been created in our county.  And so basically it changed the prospective that we need more of a collaborative effort in order to solve some problems in the criminal justice system.”

Washington says that Problem Solving Courts help reduce recidivism, or a person’s relapse into criminal behavior and subsequent return to jail.  She says that under this transformed system, the court is more engaged in social sciences and understanding why people do what they do.  The judge, she says, acts as a coach:

“This new way of looking at things, we look forward and see how we can address these issues and stop people from coming into this revolving door process of our criminal justice system.  The old way, there are few participants and stake holders, but the new way of thinking about law and collaborative efforts, we have lots of stake holders.  Lots of people that are interesting in and invested in this process.”

Washington says that problem solving courts might trade a little efficiency for effectiveness, because under what she calls the old system, people are just pushed through the system and there are fewer steps in the process.  But, she says, it’s a fair trade.

According to Washington, the idea of problem solving courts actually originated in law enforcement.  Police recognized the importance of identifying the factors that influenced individuals to continually commit crimes and and they recognized the need to engage the community as an active partner in trying to find solutions.

Specialized drug courts, mental health courts, and child custody courts work with people to develop treatment and action plans, rather than focusing solely on punishment under the letter of the law.

Drug courts, for example, revolve around sobriety and accountability for accused parties.  The judge takes on the role of encourager and manager, and tries to keep participants engaged in treatment.  Washington explains the goal of drug courts for non-violent offenders:

“Basically,” she says, problem-solving justice is “trying to put offenders in a position that they can go back out and be law abiding citizens.”

Problem Solving courts, especially drug courts, began to gain a foot hold in the 1990s and had spread all across the country by 2000.

Public safety, Washington explains, is of course still of upmost importance.  The protection of victims makes implementing a problem solving approach difficult or impossible in some cases, like cases of domestic violence.  Restorative justice, Washington says, is still important.

In Alaska, Washington says, we have Veterans Courts, Family Courts, DUI Courts, Substance Abuse Courts, OWL (or Operating Without a License) Courts, and Mental Health Courts.  She says the courts have the power to build a treatment plan for an offender, from requiring them to attend drug treatment and mandated drug testing, to requiring the offender to pursue his or her education and become employed.  The court, Washington says, has the power to immediately send the offender to jail if he or she doesn’t comply, but the court can also issue rewards to those who do well within the program.

One example of a court unique to Alaska, Washington says, is our operating with out a license courts.

“Believe it or not,” Washington says, “there are a lot of people in Alaska driving around without a drivers license.  And so, that was a problem because when we looked at the numbers, you’ve got more than 5,000 cases of people that are just driving without a license.  Just everyday people.  They make have lost their license because they couldn’t afford insurance, they may not have paid child support.  Your license can be suspended for non-payment of child-support.  And so here this whole community of people are driving around…and we don’t have a mass transit system.  So people go for broke and they just drive and they get charged with crimes.  And so, because the first time, the mandatory minimum sentence that’s been imposed by the legislature, is 80 hours of community work service that automatically converts to jail to ten days in jail if you don’t do it.  For driving without a license.  I mean some of you probably drove here without a license.  Don’t say anything you have the right to remain silent.”

The OWL court partners with the DMV to make a plan to get offenders license’s reinstated.

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