In an era of swelling needs, court systems across the nation have been hard-pressed to promote innovation. As demands increase, effectiveness of the judicial process suffers, ultimately leading to erosion of public confidence. Courts have been unable to respond to changing times, emerging social problems and increased public expectations because court administrators were hindered by outdated technology, scarce resources and day-to-day responsibility of operating large public institutions with escalating caseloads. The justice system could not spare the time or energy necessary to encourage change and explore new ideas.
In order to cultivate more creativity within the justice field, the New York State Court System and the Fund for the City of New York, a nonprofit, joined together to create the Center for Court Innovation in 1996. The Center for Court Innovation is unique public-private partnership that works within the New York Court System but is administered by the Fund for the City of New York. The Center's priority is to incubate new court prototypes, functioning like an independent research and development arm. As a result, New York State Courts have developed into more reflective, problem-solving, and citizen-oriented institutions that focus on the quality of outcomes achieved for victims, communities, and defendants.
The Center has established numerous court prototypes, which address specific community problems through a powerful partnership with outside social service agencies and have stimulated replications on both the local and national level. The courts are run by Center staff in conjunction with court employees and have already led to impressive changes throughout New York State.
The Center's first model court was the Midtown Community Court, which was created out of concerns over quality of life issues in 1993. New York's Community Courts focus on sentencing offenders of less serious crimes, such as prostitution or vandalism, to community service and on-site social services. New York's Treatment Courts and Family Treatment Courts link nonviolent substance-abusing defendants or parents accused of child neglect to drug treatment programs. Evaluators have documented statistically significant reductions in recidivism among participants of New York drug treatment courts. In addition, New York's Domestic Violence Courts provide enhanced services to victims and strict judicial monitoring of felony offenders. The Center has also piloted mental health courts, youth courts, integrated domestic violence courts and other experiments. In each of the Center's courtrooms, a Resource Coordinator is responsible to assist judges and attorneys in assessing the needs of defendants and then matching them with appropriate social services.
The development and introduction of information technology into the court room has been critical to the Center's accomplishments. The judges, prosecutors, and defense counsels all have access to identical information for each case, which allows for quick and effective review of data. The Center's website allows for the efficient dissemination of information to 2,500 problem-solving courts currently in operation in the U.S.
While providing a valuable ongoing resource for the State, the Center's freedom from day-to-day operational responsibilities enables it to move quickly, testing new ideas, creating new partnerships, and raising funds from sources that have never supported the court system before, including foundations, corporations, and the federal government. The Center also performs consulting work with criminal justice officials across the country and around the world, including working with the British government on the replication of community courts in England and Wales.
Collaborative planning with private and public stakeholders, strong program evaluation, and information technology comprise the key elements that led to the success of this initiative. The visible improvements within communities where the prototype courts have been introduced are leading to restoration of public trust and confidence in the judicial process as well as jump-starting a national conversation about the future of justice.