As chair of the Magistrates’ Association’s (MA) adult court committee, I had the privilege of leading the panel on Intensive Supervision/problem-solving courts at the MA conference last November.
The aim of Intensive Supervision/problem-solving courts is to reduce reoffending and enhance outcomes for defendants. They combine court authority with crucial services and have shown notable success in curbing substance misuse and repeat offences.
On the panel were Tom McNeil, Assistant Police and Crime Commissioner for the West Midlands, who had a major role in establishing the Intensive Supervision Court (ISC) for women offenders in Birmingham, and Sarah Clarke, deputy chair of the adult court committee, who was involved in the Community Sentence Treatment Requirements (CSTRs) pilot in Buckinghamshire.
We explored CSTRs as a key area where magistrates are already using problem-solving approaches. Unlike ISCs, the monitoring of an offender who is given a CSTR is not done by the same judge. Sarah highlighted the benefits of consistency in monitoring, discussing the role of link workers involved, who were the “glue that held it together”. Benefiting from local knowledge and input worked well, as there was someone to build that relationship with.
However, CSTRs, where problem-solving approaches have been used, are chronically underused. This could limit the embedding and normalisation of problem-solving approaches locally. Sarah told the panel that just 0.1 per cent of community orders in her local area included a Mental Health Treatment Requirement (MHTR).
The ISC court pilot in Birmingham
Tom highlighted positive outcomes from the local ISC pilot, where reoffending reduced across participants, emphasising the consistency of judicial monitoring as a contributing factor.
We also touched on the theme of the conference: local justice. Problem-solving courts need a number of services to be effective and accessible to those they support. Therefore, how far you centralise services, so that they are available to as wide a group of people as possible, without making it too far from too many of these people to have an impact, is important. Problem-solving courts are only as good as the services that support them. The panel agreed that balance is needed. If the court is signposting to something complex and inaccessible, it reduces the likelihood that an offender will comply. For it to work, it’s important to have a simple process with as few steps and the least amount of distance to travel as possible. An offender with a drug or alcohol treatment has a complicated enough life without that added inconvenience of travelling a long distance to comply with the terms of their order.
Accessibility and practicality of treatment
Sarah mentioned the already notable challenges in administering Mental Health Treatment Requirements, and the difficult environment that the rollout of ISCs must contend with to be successful. Mental health services have for some time struggled with underfunding, and high staff turnover has made it difficult to provide continuity of services. In court, liaison and diversion staff are not always available due to recruitment issues. All of this has a knock-on impact on the efficacy of orders and indeed whether they are made at all. It is important to remember that sentencers can only sentence CSTRs for community orders, and that courts can’t ‘up-tariff’ to get an offender onto an order.
Both panellists highlighted the importance of data-driven decisions to justify the expansion of problem-solving courts, recognising magistrates as key partners in this endeavour.
The MA’s adult court committee will be looking at ways to take this forward and monitor the rollout of ISCs in 2024. If you have any questions or comments for the committee—or have been part of a problem-solving court/ISC, please get in touch at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Photo: © Philip Wolmuth