Cook County has more than 30 specialty courts that deal with veterans, the mentally ill and other people who are accused of nonviolent crimes. But what exactly is a specialty court?

By Sarah Conway

Cook County Courthouse at 26th and California (Photo: Comtesse DeSpair/Flickr)

Cook County Courthouse at 26th and California (Photo: Comtesse DeSpair/Flickr)

This summer, City Bureau covered the opening of Restorative Justice Community Court, the nation’s first court to exclusively use peace circles instead of trials and prison sentences, in North Lawndale. As an expansion of that work, this fall we’ve been looking at other community-oriented solutions to crime, inside and outside of the criminal justice system.

RJCC is part of Cook County’s specialty court system, which includes a range of alternatives to the traditional system, from Veteran’s Court to Mental Health Court. Here’s what you need to know about them.

What is a specialty court?

Specialty courts test new legal approaches aimed at solving perceived flaws in the traditional criminal justice system. For instance, some courts might prioritize reducing incarceration, while others may target the underlying personal and societal roots of the crime.

Instead of being sentenced for their crimes, defendants can be put on probation and assigned to a treatment program which sometimes includes a recovery home, regular visits with a judge and probation officer and help with finding services and job opportunities. These courts often drop charges and offer record expungement to those who qualify.

Specialty courts tend to serve a small number of defendants (one Chicago drug court graduates only 40 to 50 individuals per year), but go deep into identifying problems and providing holistic treatment, like in-patient substance abuse treatment to treat a longterm opiate addiction, G.E.D. courses or job training and placement.

The nation’s first specialty court was created in 1989 in Miami, and today there are hundreds of such courts across the country addressing everything from drug abuse to evictions. The movement is growing. Just last month, President Donald Trump’s opioid commission announced plans to recommend that drug courts be established in every federal judicial district.

How do specialty courts work in Cook County?

The Cook County Circuit Court has a network of specialty courts, including drug treatment courts, mental health treatment courts and veteran treatment courts. This county-wide system focuses on non-violent felony crimes (like drug possession), but some suburban courts accept misdemeanor cases, according to the Cook County Circuit Court’s website.

How do specialty courts really differ from a regular court?

Appearance-wise, specialty courts can look just like traditional courts or be completely different. At North Lawndale’s RJCC, for example, Judge Colleen Sheehan sits at the same table as the defendant, prosecutor, social worker, peace circle keeper and other court personnel, to represent a cornerstone of the restorative justice movement, a peace circle. Cook County’s drug court program, called Rehabilitation Alternative Probation— or RAP— looks very much like a traditional courtroom, with Judge Charles Burns’s bench elevated above defendants.

The main difference is that defendants, sometimes referred to as a “clients,” are usually placed in a treatment program that is closely monitored by the judge, for months or even years. They return to court periodically for progress check-ins, and often are given many opportunities to stay on track and avoid the prison system. Jail is sometimes on the table as a punishment, and a judge decides when the defendant can be released from the program, or if his or her case will be sent back to the traditional court system.

Also, unlike typical criminal courts, the judge and court staff in specialty courts tend to have extensive knowledge about the defendant and communicate often with him or her. This can be a source of controversy, as some experts view it as unconstitutional in nature. (For more on that, check out a piece on a Adult Redeploy Illinois court by the Chicago Reader’s Maya Dukmasova.)

What are some of the criticisms of specialty courts?

Some public health experts say that incorporating the criminal justice system into treatment for a disease, such as treating opioid addiction through drug courts, can result in punishing participants by sending them to prison if they relapse, as most people addicted to opioids do.

Defendants in most specialty courts are also assumed guilty from the outset, which removes their right to defend themselves against an accused crime.

What’s the incentive to use speciality courts?

Alternative courts provide the possibility of lowering incarceration costs while operating under relatively small budgets. For instance, the ACT Court (a drug court) has operated for three years, spending less than a million dollars annually. It has diverted 151 individuals (between graduates and current participants) from getting an average of 18 months of incarceration each in the Illinois Department of Corrections, according to the Chicago Appleseed Fund for Justice website. This specialty court has resulted in approximately $8 million in savings for the state of Illinois.

The most common charge for Cook County Jail inmates in 2016 was drug possession, according to a Chicago Reporter investigation. Taxpayers have spent $778 million jailing people on the lowest-level possession charges, the investigation found. Sheriff Tom Dart, who oversees the jail, estimates that it costs $143 a day to detain an inmate, and eventually one in three of these cases were dismissed, which means many users are released from a costly stay in jail without treatment. Specialty courts in Cook County have the potential to help nonviolent offenders bypass incarceration.

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