SANTA ANA, Calif.—This state has a reputation for experimentation. It often leads the United States in adopting practices that profoundly change the country’s approach to public policy. It is also a national leader in restorative-justice practices, thanks to its numerous specialty courts, where offenders avoid prison time and earn second chances if they commit to an intensive rehabilitation program. I recently spent a week at the Orange County Community Court, which houses multiple specialty courts. The concentration of talent, good will, and grit embodied by the people who work here is impressive. But it’s not clear that this resource-heavy, intensely hands-on approach would be easily replicable elsewhere.
“The idea is for everyone to get together to try to figure out the best way to keep people from coming back,” said the presiding judge, Joe Perez. “We try to provide them with the treatment that is needed, and the structure that is needed, because many of them have had no structure.” Many of the people who come before Perez have previously committed misdemeanors, or sometimes felonies, and have often experienced trauma or substance abuse.
The first type of specialty, or problem-solving, courts to emerge and gain popularity were drug courts for offenders arrested for drug use and mostly low-level crimes. After that, veteran-treatment courts began to redirect former servicemen and women who ended up in custody—largely due to mental-health and substance-abuse issues—toward services for which they already qualified through the Veteran Benefits Administration. From there, new courts began focusing on juveniles, the homeless, DUIs, domestic-violence cases, and multiple other specialties, based on the needs of the locality.