The Problem of Problem-Solving Courts

57 Pages Posted: 9 Dec 2019 Last revised: 18 Mar 2021

See all articles by Erin Collins

Erin Collins

University of Richmond School of Law

Date Written: November 22, 2019


The creation of a specialized, “problem-solving” court is a ubiquitous response to the issues that plague our criminal legal system. The courts promise to address the factors believed to lead to repeated interactions with the system, such as addiction or mental illness, thereby reducing recidivism and saving money. And they do so effectively – at least according to their many proponents, who celebrate them as an example of a successful “evidence-based,” data-driven reform. But the actual data on their efficacy is underwhelming, inconclusive, or altogether lacking. So why do they persist?

This Article seeks to answer that question by scrutinizing the role of judges in creating and sustaining the problem-solving court movement. It contends problem-solving courts do effectively address a problem – it is just not the one we think. It argues that these courts revive a sense of purpose and authority for judges in an era marked by diminishing judicial power. Moreover, it demonstrates that the courts have developed and proliferated relatively free from objective oversight. Together, these new insights help explain why the problem-solving court model endures. They also reveal a new problem with the model itself – its entrenchment creates resistance to alternatives that might truly reform the system.

Keywords: criminal justice reform, courts, problem-solving courts, drug courts, mental health courts, judges, judging, veterans courts, evidence-based reform, criminal procedure, sentencing, punishment

Suggested Citation

Collins, Erin, The Problem of Problem-Solving Courts (November 22, 2019). UC Davis Law Review, Vol. 54, No. 1573, 2021, Available at SSRN: or

Erin Collins (Contact Author)

University of Richmond School of Law ( email )

203 Richmond Way
Richmond, VA 23173
United States

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