Austin Runs 10 Specialized Criminal Courts: Do They Work?


Austin, Texas, has 10 specialized criminal courts, more than in any other county in the state, including adult and juvenile drug courts, DWI court, felony and misdemeanor mental health courts, a family violence court, Project Recovery (a program for “chronic inebriants,”) and soon, a veterans’ court, says the Austin Chronicle. The ultimate goal of these programs is simple: Create a framework that addresses and corrects underlying behavioral issues so that as many people as possible can be diverted from jail and prison – and can be kept from becoming repeat customers of the criminal justice system.

“These are driven by [the question], ‘What causes crime?'” says County Attorney David Escamilla. “And if we avoid recidivism, we succeed.” In a review of how the courts are working in Austin, the Chronicle says the concept is not without critics, though in Austin there are surprisingly few. Problem-solving courts operate in a collaborative environment in which prosecutors, defense attorneys, judges, probation officers, and social service providers work together to resolve individual cases. The National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers has questioned whether the dilution of the adversarial process weakens legal protections afforded to defendants. There are also questions about whether the courts should be addressing social issues at all and whether carving out special courts, each of which can handle only a limited number of cases, is discriminatory or inequitable.

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