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Many Criminals Now Get Their Day in Specialty Court

In Brooklyn, N.Y., a person charged with a first-time drug offense is tried in a separate drug court. If the offender is a woman, she goes to women's drug court.

There's also a domestic violence court in Santa Clara County, Calif., for people who violate their restraining orders. And in Providence, R.I., suspects charged with using a firearm while committing a crime go to gun court.

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The proliferation of "specialty" courts is a quiet trend that's been sweeping through the states over the past five years - with important implications ranging from savings to taxpayers to the kind of sentences that are handed down. Today judges hear cases in water court, commercial court, environmental court, and truancy court, to name a few.

"It's a huge movement," says John Feinblatt, coordinator of New York City's Midtown Community Court. "It's all really quite remarkable. And it's all happened in a very short time."

The rise of specialized courts is a response, experts say, to chronic overloading of the court dockets. The backlog has forced a sometimes staid institution to rethink how it is organized and to experiment with new approaches to administering justice.

To many, such courts are an exciting development for the judiciary, a way to resolve cases more efficiently and more consistently in today's complex society.

But others warn that the trend may be a step back to the 1930s and '40s, when courts were subdivided in a way that allowed lawyers to shop for a judge sympathetic to their client. Specialty courts, critics also say, have been touted more by politicians trying to look tough on crime than by a court system in search of reform.

Most specialty courts involve simply setting aside one or more judges to hear a certain kind of case, based on subject, geography, or seriousness of the offense. In actuality, they are not separate courts but new divisions of existing civil or criminal courts, says Robert Bloom, a Boston College law professor.

SPECIALTY courts arose in part in response to the growing number of drug cases, which have clogged courtrooms since crack cocaine flooded the US in the 1980s and '90s. They've been heralded for their record of closing cases more quickly than general courts.

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The courts also allow judges to gain expertise in a subject that is extraordinarily complex or in which the law is changing rapidly, as in environmental, commercial, and even domestic-violence law. This expertise minimizes the likelihood that a decision will be overturned on appeal and produces greater consistency in sentencing, says Jerry Nagel, an analyst at the National Center for State Courts in Williamsburg, Va.

"Anything that helps take cases through the court process is a good thing," he says. "A specialty court offers specialty knowledge."

Specialty courts usually focus on the lowest-level or highest-level criminals. Many drug courts, for example, are set up to process the first-time, nonviolent offender. On the other end of the spectrum, habitual-offender courts and "three strikes" courts have cropped up to prevent those cases from monopolizing all the available criminal judges. Criminals certain to serve unparoled prison time if convicted have no reason to plea bargain and always opt for a jury trial, experts say, taxing judicial resources.

In the most radical of specialty courts, the intent is to reach people in need rather than to mete out punishment. Drug court, for example, is for suspects charged with possession of drugs or a petty crime committed because of a drug addiction. They plead guilty and receive the maximum sentence - but their sentence is suspended while they undergo a treatment program that involves detox, drug counseling, self-esteem workshops, and job-seeking programs.

A defendant who chooses drug court over jail is required to show up at the courthouse, where treatment services are provided, four days a week. A fifth day each week, the defendants are in court, where they see the same judge who has been reviewing their progress.

At a drug court in Boston's neighborhood of Mattapan, Judge Robert Ziemian has become a father figure who metes out a type of tough love to the 30 men and women gathered in his bare courtroom. "You've got to do better if you're going to make it through the program," he admonishes. "Keep working the system and get a real job. That's part of growing up, part of the program."

"I think the public is realizing that for too long the choice has been to send someone to jail or do nothing at all," says New York's Mr. Feinblatt. "What fits better is doing something constructive and problem-solving, trying to move toward solutions."

But critics say that if the judiciary needs to streamline or be more solution-oriented, the entire court system should reform. Focusing attention on drug users or dead-beat dads or third-strike offenders diverts resources from other cases that may be even more pressing.

In addition, the proliferation of specialized courts may undercut one of the reasons they were created - their ability to use limited resources efficiently. "It takes a lot of judge power to listen to these cases," says Grant Slayden, a court consultant in Florida's Office of Court Administration. "You have to ask, 'What is the overall cost to the system?' "

Because specialty courts are so new, there's been almost no formal assessment of their effectiveness. But supporters and detractors agree that the experiment will likely lead to some kind of permanent judicial reform.

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