Nearly two decades ago, Carrie Menkel-Meadow (1996: 30) asked ‘what would result if we re-defined our legal system to seek “problem-solving” as one of its goals rather than “truth-finding” ’? She acknowledged that this suggestion would likely elicit ‘huge outpourings of objections’. However, in the intervening years, there is evidence that a shift has indeed taken place, with many international jurisdictions such as the US, Canada, Australia, Scotland, England and Wales operating with some system of problem-solving justice. Problem-solving is most frequently discussed in the context of problem-solving courts. However, it is important to distinguish between problem-solving courts, and the related but separate concepts of ‘problem-solving’ and problem-solving justice. Problem-solving is a generic term which can be applied broadly to describe generally ad hoc attempts to find solutions to problems – its use of course extends beyond criminal justice to mathematics, economics and computer science for example. Problemsolving justice relates to problem-solving innovations in the criminal justice domain specifically, although it too is an elastic concept that has different incarnations across jurisdictions. While difficult to define, problem-solving justice has a number of overlapping principles. Problem-solving justice is in essence, about ‘the community’. It is about engaging the community, involving it in efforts to reduce crime and it is about building the capacity and resilience of neighbourhoods. Problem-solving justice’s focus upon the local community is important because research suggests that people who live in high crime areas are more likely to be victims of crime, they are more likely to witness a violent crime or to know someone who has been the victim of crime, and these experiences can profoundly affect peoples’ outlook on life as well as their level of ambition (NHF 1999). Fear of crime is also higher in unsafe neighbourhoods and evidence suggests that individuals tend to withdraw from these communities and lead more sheltered and isolated lives (Ellen 2012). There is also strong evidence to support the conclusion that unsafe or high-crime environments detrimentally affect families and children. Exposure to crime (especially violence) can heighten stress levels in children, lower cognitive test scores and diminish performance in school (Aizer 2008; Sharkey 2010; Stafford et al. 2007). Elevated stress makes it difficult for children to concentrate or focus in school and learn, and it may compromise their immune systems long term, therefore increasing vulnerability to
disease. Crime may also profoundly affect the social structures of communities through high levels of incarceration: crime disrupts social networks, breaks up families, and weakens local institutions (Rose and Clear 2001; Donoghue 2008). Problem-solving justice is in many respects, conceived of as a response to these issues – it is about the idea that, rather than simply processing cases, the justice system should seek to change the behaviour of offenders and improve public and community safety. The Center for Court Innovation in New York, which is a non-profit organisation that creates new programmes to test innovative approaches to public safety problems, has been a key influence and a fundamental driver in the development and growth of problem-solving justice; both in America but also in other jurisdictions such as the United Kingdom. A number of the Center’s demonstration projects have received significant recognition and acclaim and they have also impacted upon the creation of problem-solving innovations in other jurisdictions. In particular, the award-winning Red Hook Community Justice Center in Brooklyn has been adopted as a model of excellence in a number of other jurisdictions. In addition, the Center has established a sister organisation in London, the Centre for Justice Innovation, which aims to improve the implementation, evaluation and dissemination of new ideas and new practices (including problem-solving justice) across the criminal justice domain in Britain. Moreover, the US has also influenced international developments in problem-solving justice because there is a very significant body of academic scholarship and empirical research on problem-solving justice and court specialisation that has examined, amongst other things, the efficacy of problem-solving courts, the benefits of problemsolving justice for victims and communities and the various implications of problem-solving courts for due process and legal ethics. Elsewhere, the body of academic literature on problem-solving and court specialisation is relatively slim in comparison to the U.S. The Center for Court Innovation has identified six principles of problemsolving justice which have been adopted, either wholesale or in part, in other international jurisdictions (Wolf 2007: 2-8). The principles provide a useful framework for understanding the concept and praxis of problem-solving justice:
1 Enhanced information
Better staff training (about complex issues like domestic violence and drug addiction) combined with better information (about litigants, victims and the community context of crime) can help improve the decision-making of judges, attorneys, and other justice officials. High-quality information – gathered with the assistance of technology and shared in accordance with confidentiality laws – can help practitioners make more nuanced decisions about both treatment needs and the risks individual defendants pose to public safety, ensuring offenders receive an appropriate level of supervision and services.