Problem-Solving Courts

Introduction

(Last updated February 20, 2024)  In August 2023, the Commission identified as one of its final priorities "the “[c]ompilation and dissemination of information on court-sponsored programs relating to diversion, alternatives-to-incarceration, and reentry (e.g., Pretrial Opportunity Program, Conviction And Sentence Alternatives (CASA) Program, Special Options Services (SOS) Program, Supervision to Aid Re-entry (STAR) Program) through the Commission’s website and possible workshops and seminars sharing best practices for developing, implementing, and assessing such programs.”  With this priority, the Commission continues its ongoing work in the area of alternatives to incarceration.

The Commission received a considerable amount of public comment supporting the “[c]ompilation and dissemination of information on court-sponsored programs relating to diversion, alternatives-to-incarceration, and reentry...through the Commission’s website.”

This page provides a collection of publicly available resources that have informed and are a product of the Commission's 2023-2024 policy priority work thus far.  It will be updated periodically as the Commission continues its work in this area.  The Commission recognizes that the needs and resources of stakeholders and participants are unique to each district.  Therefore, the Commission believes that these programs are best developed at a grassroots level.  The information provided on this webpage is intended to support such development.

 

Follow along with the work of the 2023-2024 Alternatives-to-Incarceration Policy Team in this Commission Chats miniseries, featuring the federal judges who lead the problem-solving court programs available around the country. Parts One through Four are out now! (Latest episode published February 20, 2024)

 

Current Landscape

Federal problem-solving-courts can include both front-end and reentry programs.  Types of front-end programs vary by district and can include: 1) pretrial diversion with deferred prosecution, 2) post-plea/pre-sentence programs that defer sentencing, or 3) both.  Federal problem-solving courts can address a number of individual issues such as substance use and mental health, and some courts address more than one issue.  Federal problem-solving courts can also focus on specific groups of individuals such as veterans and young adults.

In recent years, the Federal Judicial Center (FJC) has been providing in-district training and technical assistance, by request, to districts in all phases of their development and operation of federal problem-solving courts.[1]  The FJC also offers a rigorous national training program for problem-solving courts.  The FJC’s assistance enables districts to continuously improve their problem-solving courts by, for example, revising incentive and sanction programs. Importantly, in this role, the FJC seeks to promote conformity with best practice standards created by All Rise.  The All Rise standards are based on an extensive literature review of problem-solving courts and provide evidence-based guidance on target populations, incentives and sanctions, treatment plans, etc.  As a result of adopting these standards, the ATIs operating across the various districts are typically alike insofar as they act within the framework of these best practices.

The map below displays active federal problem-solving courts (as of July 2023).  Links to district-specific sentencing data are provided with available problem-solving court information for each district.

 

 

 

 

The Commission has also begun collecting program-specific documentation for public dissemination.  The Commission collaborated with chief judges, clerks of court, and chief probation officers from all 94 federal judicial districts to compile information on any existing or planned problem-solving court programs.  Supporting program documents received by the Commission as of November 2023 are available below for reference.  The number and type of available documents varies by program.  Therefore, the number and type of documents provided below also varies.  The Commission will update the table as it continues to receive program documents for public dissemination.

 

 

 

Commission Reports

The Commission has published several reports on alternatives to incarceration over the years.  The 2009 and 2015 Commission reports, Alternative Sentencing in the Federal Criminal Justice System, focused on trends for United States citizen offenders in prison-only sentences versus alternative sentencing options specifically provided for in the Guidelines Manual (i.e., probation-only sentences, probation-and-confinement sentences, and prison/community split sentences).[2]  The 2017 report, Federal Alternative-to-Incarceration Court Programs[3] was the Commission’s first published work analyzing the nature of these emerging programs and some of the legal and social science issues related to them.

Alternative Sentencing in the Federal Criminal Justice System (2009)

The 2009 report used fiscal year 2007 data, which showed that prison-only sentences accounted for 81.1 percent of sentences imposed on United States citizens during that time.  The report found that the “sentencing zone ultimately determine[d] whether offenders [we]re sentenced to alternatives.”  “[G]uideline offense level and Criminal History Category, alone or in combination, [we]re the principal factors determining whether an offender receive[d] an alternative sentence.”  While “[s]ome additional guideline and demographic characteristics also [we]re associated with offenders’ receipt of an alternative sentence,” those factors also were “associated with one or both of the zone determinants.”

Alternative Sentencing in the Federal Criminal Justice System (2015)

The 2015 report built on the 2009 report and analyzed alternative sentencing trends in the wake of Gall v. United States[4] and the Zone B and C expansion.  It explained that “[d]espite the array of sentencing options available to sentencing courts, there have been decreases during the past ten years [2005–2014] in both the proportion of offenders eligible for [alternative] sentences, as well as in the proportion of such sentences imposed for those eligible.”  While there had been “a steady overall increase in sentences below the guideline range due to downward departures or variances” after United States v. Booker[5] and Gall, the increased use of sentencing courts’ discretion “ha[d] not resulted in the imposition of higher rates of alterative sentences as one might expect.”  The report concluded that this decreasing trend was “in part . . . due to the Commission’s 2010 expansion of Zones B and C on the Sentencing Table,” explaining that this expansion “introduced relatively more serious offenders into Zones B and C” and that “[o]ffenders with sentencing ranges in the expanded cells received alternative sentences at lower rates compared to offenders with sentencing ranges in previously existing cells.” 

Federal Alternative-to-Incarceration Court Programs (2017)

The Commission published a 2017 report on federal alternative-to-incarceration court programs.  The report summarized the nature of existing federal alternative-to-incarceration court programs and highlighted several legal and social science issues relating to them.  The Commission’s analysis was qualitative rather than quantitative because of a lack of available empirical data about the programs.  The qualitative analysis included an in-depth focus on five programs: (1) the BRIDGE Court Program in the District of South Carolina; (2) the Conviction and Sentence Alternative (CASA) Program in the Central District of California; (3) the Pretrial Alternatives to Detention Initiative (PADI) in the Central District of Illinois; (4) the Repair, Invest, Succeed, Emerge (RISE) Program in the District of Massachusetts; and (5) the Sentencing Alternatives Improving Lives (SAIL) Program in the Eastern District of Missouri.  The report provided a discussion of legal issues related to the court programs, including how they fit within the legal framework of the Sentencing Reform Act of 1984.[6]  The report concluded by identifying several questions about the federal court programs that policymakers and courts should consider in deciding whether, and if so how, such programs should operate in the federal criminal justice system in the future.
 

Additional Resources

Two evaluations of federal ATI programs are relevant to the current priority:

  1. For a summary of an FJC “multi-year evaluation of five federal model reentry court programs,” see Timothy D. DeGiusti, Innovative Justice: Federal Reentry Drug Courts How Should We Measure Success?, 82 Fed. Prob. J. (2018).
     
  2. Laura Baber, et. al.’s Expanding the Analysis:  Alternatives to Incarceration across 13 Federal Districts[7] is the most recent and comprehensive evaluation of federal front-end programs, to the exclusion of reentry courts.  It is a multi-district analysis that focuses on short-term outcomes of federal front-end courts.[8]  This study built on a prior study of ATI programs in seven districts.[9]
     
  3. Additional relevant information:

[1]  Telephone Interview with Christina Ruffino, Senior Education Specialist, Fed. Jud. Ctr. (Oct. 5, 2022) [hereinafter Ruffino Interview].

[2]  Courtney Semisch, U.S. Sent’g Comm’n, Alternative Sentencing in the Federal Criminal Justice System (2009); Courtney R. Semisch, U.S. Sent’g Comm’n, Alternative Sentencing in the Federal Criminal Justice System (2015).

[3]  Brent E. Newton, U.S. Sent’g Comm’n, Federal Alternative-to-Incarceration Court Programs (2017).

[4]  552 U.S. 38 (2007).  In Gall, the Court affirmed as “reasonable” the district court’s sentence of probation, which was a substantial downward variance from the guideline-recommended sentencing range of 30–37 months of incarceration.  (“On abuse-of-discretion review, the Court of Appeals should have given due deference to the District Court’s reasoned and reasonable decision that the [18 U.S.C.] § 3553(a) factors, on the whole, justified the sentence.”).  The Commission’s 2009 report analyzed data only through the end of fiscal year 2007, which predated the Court’s decision in Gall.

[5]  543 U.S. 220 (2005).

[6]  Pub. L. No. 98-473, Title II, ch. II, 98 Stat. 2032.

[7]  Laura Baber, Kevin Wolff, Johnathan Muller, Christine Dozier, and Roberto Cordeiro, Expanding the Analysis: Alternatives to Incarceration across 13 Federal Districts, 85 Fed. Prob. J. (2021).

[8]  In the study’s conclusion, the authors note plans “to perform a recidivism analysis of ATI participants who are no longer in the federal justice system” using criminal history data from the Federal Bureau of Investigation.  However, that study was postponed due to the COVID-19 pandemic and has not yet been rescheduled due to current budget constraints. Ruffino Interview.

[9]  Laura Baber, Kevin Wolff, Johnathan Muller, Christine Dozier, and Roberto Cordeiro, A Viable Alternative? Alternatives to Incarceration across Seven Federal Districts, 83 Fed. Prob. J. (2019). Districts and programs included the original study were: Sentencing Alternatives Improving Lives (SAIL) program, Eastern District of Missouri; the Conviction Alternatives Program, Northern District of California; the Conviction and Sentencing Alternatives program (CASA), Central District of California; Alternatives to Detention Initiative (PADI), Central District of Illinois, the Young Adult Opportunity Program, Southern District of New York; the Pretrial Opportunity Program (POP), Eastern District of New York; the Special Options Services program (SOS), Eastern District of New York; and the Pretrial Opportunity Program (POP), New Jersey.