Leading judges, legal experts push specialty courts as key justice tool in reducing recidivism

By: - March 1, 2021 3:22 am

A proposed bill in the Kansas House would allow Chief Justice Marla Luckert and the Kansas Supreme Court the authority to establish specialty courts across the state. It would also establish a specialty court resource fund and funding advisory committee. (Screenshot from Kansas Supreme Court YouTube/Kansas Reflector)

TOPEKA — Specialty courts across the state are receiving high praise from criminal justice advocates and experts for their effectiveness in reducing recidivism rates for those who embark on the “therapeutic” process.

These courts are an attempt to address the systemic causes within the criminal justice, whether it be an addiction, mental health disorders, or aiding veterans with demons they carry from their service. Defendants enter into agreements with the court and proceed through a vigorous program, generally 18 months long, with intense supervision from the judge and other professionals.

Upon completion of the vigorous program, typically 18 months long, the judge may expunge the conviction or reduce a probationary sentence.

In Kansas, there are currently only about 21 specialty courts in 14 of the 31 judicial districts. Now, a Kansas bill could greatly expand the number of these programs by authorizing the Kansas Supreme Court to establish specialty courts and a specialty court fund.

“The long-term goal really is just to try to reduce that pattern of committing a crime being put on probation but not really being given tools to help you from getting out of that cycle of crime,” said Kansas Supreme Court Chief Justice Marla Luckert. “How can we provide a supportive environment that helps change that, whatever those behaviors are, and put this person on a road to where they can succeed?”

District Judge Glenn Braun praised the bill for including mechanisms to meet the funding needs of specialty courts. (Screen capture of Kansas Legislature YouTube/Kansas Reflector)

The proposed legislation passed favorably out of the House Committee on Corrections and Juvenile Justice, chaired by Rep. Russ Jennings, R-Lakin, and now goes before the full House chamber for approval. The measure comes after the state’s highest court recently adopted a rule establishing a standing specialty court committee to make recommendations regarding the development of specialty courts in Kansas.

If passed by both chambers, the measure would make several changes to laws governing expungement and sentencing in Kansas. The bill would permit early expungement, allow a judge to waive the expungement docket fee or for the judge to change the offender’s sentence upon graduation from the program.

Supporters of the bill believe this will help incentivize defendants to enter into a court agreement and receive the help they need in this space.

Additionally, the measure establishes a specialty court funding advisory committee to oversee available resources, secure grants and funding needed to treat those assigned to these courts. In tandem, the bill creates the specialty court resource fund to address needs like transportation costs, substance abuse treatment, job training and several other supportive measures.

This provision is paramount as funding concerns are among the more significant reasons more specialty courts have not been established, said Ellis County District Judge Gene Braun.

“The state’s specialty courts often rely on sporadic grant funding to meet the needs of those who participate in the programs,” Braun said. “While specialty courts can save money by decreasing the need for incarceration, they carry costs at the outset that must be met for a program to be successful.”

In placing their support behind the bill — a recommendation by the Kansas Criminal Justice Reform Commission — members of the House Corrections committee expressed excitement at the potential for more of these programs to be built.

“It’s quite different from the adversarial proceedings that we typically see in a courtroom, although it still holds people to account, so I’m thrilled to have this bill, and hopefully we can see this replicated in other jurisdictions,” Jennings said.

The House Committee on Corrections and Juvenile Justice, chaired by Rep. Russ Jennings, R-Lakin, favorably passed the specialty courts bill. Jennings said he was glad to support a bill expanding on existent programs. (Noah Taborda/Kansas Reflector)

In many, if not all, instances, these courts hold defendants more to account than even traditional probationary routes, said Lawton Nuss, former chief justice of the Kansas Supreme Court. He said intense supervision from the judge is what sets the program apart from other diversion options.

“You don’t just cast someone to be in the drug court program and say we’ll come back in a couple of months,” Nuss said. “And you have to answer the judge’s questions while your colleagues if you will, your fellow drug defendants, are watching you. And you don’t want to let them down. It’s almost a teamwork mentality.”

Additional bill elements ask for the office of the judicial administration to provide technical assistance should it be needed.

Rep. John Carmichael, D-Wichita, admitted he was not a believer in these courts at first but said the legislation offered an opportunity to good in the justice system.

“When I first heard about specialty courts … I thought everyone ought to be treated the same, and we drag everybody in for a docket call and take their pleas and send them on their ways,” Carmichael said. “These courts are an outstanding idea and, in the end, save society trouble, inconvenience, money and reroute people away from corrections and into rehabilitation.”

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Noah Taborda
Noah Taborda

Noah Taborda started his journalism career in public radio at KBIA in Columbia, Missouri, covering local government and producing an episode of the podcast Show Me The State while earning his bachelor’s degree in radio broadcasting at the University of Missouri School of Journalism. Noah then made a short move to Kansas City, Missouri, to work at KCUR as an intern on the talk show Central Standard and then in the newsroom, reporting on daily news and feature stories.

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