Honoring Specialty Courts at Law Day Dinner

As you can see with a quick scroll through our recent posts, the budget has lately been at the forefront our time and advocacy efforts.  Here is a link to our latest post on the subject which includes the most updated numbers on where things stand for our budget priorities – civil legal aid, the Trial Court, and statewide expansion of the Housing Court.  Amidst all the funding talk, it is still of the utmost importance to keep our eyes on our mission, including facilitating access to justice.  Nowhere is this more clearly illustrated than our support of the Specialty Courts.  As you may have heard over the last few months, BBA President Lisa Arrowood completed visits to each type of Specialty Court available in Massachusetts – Drug, Mental Health, Veteran’s Treatment, and Homeless Courts and on May 12, we will be honoring the Specialty Courts by bestowing the BBA President’s Award on all Specialty Court Judges at our annual Law Day Dinner.

As explained by the Trial Court, Specialty Courts, “are problem-solving court sessions which provide court-supervised probation and mandated treatment focused on treating the mental health or substance abuse issues underlying criminal behavior.”  Judges balance treatment and accountability for participants – considering the entirety of issues they face and meeting with them frequently to monitor and work on solving the problems underlying criminal behavior.  Judges provide support and oversight, working with probation officers who provide intensive supervision and Department of Public Health clinicians who help participants to access effective treatment and therapy.

The different sessions focus on different populations in-need and provide individualized treatment for each participant.  With the Judges leading the charge, all the staffers work as a collaborative team from the district attorney and defense attorney to clinicians and probation – everyone is committed to the success of program participants.  Judges make clear that the team is there to help and support the participant with determination and dignity, and that they expect the same level of commitment from the participants as well.  Successful participation and graduation from these sessions can mean the removing of default warrants and dismissal of criminal cases, not to mention major life and lifestyle changes as participants learn how to confront and overcome some of the most significant challenges they face.  For more details on how these sessions operate see our prior posts on Specialty Courts here and here.

The results clearly show the effectiveness of these sessions as they have resulted in some of the highest risk individuals turning their lives around.  For example, Mental Health Courts have a recidivism rate in the high teens (17-20%), less than half the rate of traditional courts.  In the last nine years, 70 people have graduated from Mental Health Court programs in Massachusetts.

However, Specialty Courts, like the entire justice system, require funding to achieve these results.  The legislature and Governor have been extremely generous in their support of these sessions in recent budgets.  This year has presented more challenges.  The Governor did not include funding for the $2.8 million specialty court module in his budget, and though the House did, it was in place of other funding.  Both the Governor and House budgets contain roughly a $17 million shortfall in court funding from the court’s maintenance requirements.  As SJC Chief Justice Ralph Gants, Trial Court Chief Justice Paula Carey, and Court Administrator Harry Spence pointed out, the shortfall and attendant layoffs of nearly 300 court employees will challenge specialty courts, even if the Specialty Court module receives funding as the Courts’ effectiveness “depends on the effective functioning of the of the underlying criminal justice system” which the current FY17 budget proposals do not fund sufficiently to support day-to-day operations.

We look forward to being a resource for you on the budget as the process continues over the coming months and may be reaching out to request your help in the Senate budget debate and beyond with targeted requests for court funding.  In the meantime, we hope to see you at the 2016 Law Day Dinner on May 12.  In addition to honoring the Specialty Courts, we will have a keynote address from Justice Rebecca Love Kourlis, an advocate for justice and the legal system.  It promises to be an uplifting and inspiring evening as we celebrate access to justice and the outstanding work of all Specialty Courts in Massachusetts.

– Jonathan Schreiber
Legislative and Public Policy Manager
Boston Bar Association