Nicolais: Specialty courts meet specific needs


Unless you are a regular in Colorado courts — offender, attorney or judge — walking into a modern courtroom might leave you with a sense of chaos and confusion. The sensation can be amplified in criminal courts as prosecutors and public defenders shuffle through case files they saw for the first time just five minutes earlier, all while the judge works with staff to process new cases as swiftly as possible.

It can leave the casual observer quite jarred.

Beyond the frenetic pace and noise, the efficacy and efficiency of such scenes has also left many courtroom professionals jarred. While every case is the most important case for each individual being accused, the criminal justice officials involved often have only the most superficial understanding. From the facts of the case to the intricacies of specialized fields, the depth of knowledge for those involved is frequently sparse.

Make no mistake, this is not meant as an indictment of the people who compose our criminal justice system. Far from it. The men and women who do this work on a daily basis handle massive caseloads and complex issues. But sometimes they just don’t have the resources.

To deal with this flaw in the system, many Colorado courts have begun instituting specialty courts. Within the jurisdiction, a specific court and team are assigned to handle very specialized issues. Rather than being dispersed throughout the system, similar offenses go before the same judge and prosecutor. By funneling cases to these courts, the individuals involved attain a deeper understanding to be applied in each case than they otherwise might have.

For example, Jefferson County has three different “problem-solving” specialty courts: Drug Recovery Court, Juvenile Mental Health Court and Veterans Court. In each instance, the courts must deal with populations differentiated from “normal” cases by distinctive characteristics. In Jeffco’s Drug Recovery Court, the emphasis for non-violent offenders shifts from strict punishment to a system that emphasizes rehabilitation through judicial accountability, best-practices treatment and enhanced supervision. The goal is to help offenders whose lives have crumbled under a chemical dependency to start over and become contributing members of their communities.

Similarly, the Juvenile Mental Health Court and the Veterans Court provide necessary services to some of our most critical populations. Children already wrapped up in the system run exponentially higher probability of life led between imprisonment and recidivism. Veterans suffering from mental disorders sustained while protecting our freedoms often have difficulty dealing with the realities of the world they sacrificed to defend. We owe it to those in both groups to be sure the underlying issues are addressed directly and not ignored.

Additionally, by investing in counseling, treatment and resources that may otherwise have been overlooked, the county itself saves substantial future costs that could be needed to deal with a lifetime offender.

Jeffco isn’t the only county employing such courts. Others have had similar success. For every Coloradan, let’s hope that success continues to grow.

Mario Nicolais is an attorney and legal scholar at the Denver law firm of Hackstaff & Snow LLC.

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