The Modern Problem-Solving Court Movement: Domination of Discourse and Untold Stories of Criminal Justice Reform

Mae C. Quinn, University of Florida Levin College of Law


There is a chasm between the rhetoric about and the reality of modern court reform movements. It is a deeply troubling divide. This Article, responding to the work of Professor Jane Spinak, is not concerned with innovations within the family court system. Rather, it examines modern criminal justice reforms. It focuses on the claims of the contemporary "problem-solving court" movement—a movement that has resulted in the development of thousands of specialized criminal courts across the country over the last two decades. Problem-solving courts, which focus on social concerns like addiction, domestic violence, mental health issues, and prostitution, purport to be a great success. Their proponents assert that such courts cure addiction, address intimate violence, prevent recidivism, reduce costs, and even save lives. But this success story—the seemingly linear and dominant narrative offered primarily by proponents of problem-solving courts—is misleading. The near-singular tale of triumph told by modern court reformers obscures alternative experiences within, and contrary opinions about, these contemporary institutions. It also fails to acknowledge another important story— that is, the checkered history of criminal court experimentation in this country. We need to mine and carefully consider these currently submerged accounts in order to fully appreciate both the promises and the significant perils of contemporary criminal court reform efforts. This Article is intended to help in that endeavor by urging more meaningful discussions about judicial experiments. It is a project that focuses on the largely untold present and the forgotten past of such institutions, with a view toward helping shape criminal courts and justice in the future.