When Specialty Courts Fail

It is well documented that the United States incarcerates more of its population than any other developed country in the world. This fact alone has driven the need among criminal justice administrators and court systems to look at possible causes for the increase in incarceration rates and to find alternatives to prison terms. The solution in many jurisdictions has been the implementation of “specialty courts” that address societal issues that have made their way into the courtroom. These specialty courts involve working with defendants that have ended up in the criminal justice system due to drug or substance abuse issues, mental health issues, or co-occurring disorders. The premise of these courts is that these individuals are not criminogenic by nature and are instead stuck in a cycle of committing crime to support their substance abuse or their behavior is due primarily to an untreated mental illness. The court provides these individuals with the treatment they need and would likely not receive in prison in order to reduce criminal behavior and ultimately recidivism rates.

The first specialty court was established in Dade County, Florida in 1989 (Frailing, 2016). It was created as a specialty drug court to help individuals who found themselves in the court system for crimes such as possession, trafficking, or even theft to support a drug habit. Instead of these people pleading to their crimes and being sentenced to a prison term where they would receive little if any substance abuse treatment and counseling, the court brought all the parties together as a team to incentivize the individual into getting help for their underlying issues. What made this so unique was that it brought prosecutors, judges, defense attorneys, treatment providers, and defendants into a room to work together in a system that has always been at its core, adversarial in nature. Since this first court was implemented, it has seen incredible success rates prompting other courts to launch programs of their own. As of 2020, there are now over 3,848 different specialty courts in the United States that are working to address the underlying issues behind criminal behavior (Center, 2020).

Despite the successes these courts have seen in the past 30 years, there are always some that fail. What these failing courts have in common is that they often require defendants to plead to the crimes they have been charged with and offer very little sentence or probation reduction. For example, the federal court in the District of Maine currently has a program called SWiTCH (Success With the Court’s Help). This program has been known to be incredibly unsuccessful since it was established, and many people feel the program should be abolished. I investigated why this program was so unsuccessful when other specialty courts across the country have had the opposite results. Here is what I found:

The SWiTCH program is not a part of the actual court system and instead is a drug treatment program that individuals can enter while on supervised release. They must have plead guilty to their charges in court and served their entire prison sentence first before ever being considered for the SWiTCH program. This means their criminal record remains unchanged and the amount of prison time served is not altered. The only incentive for individuals entering the program is that if completed successfully, they will receive one year deducted from their supervised release. Meetings are held on a monthly basis where individuals check in with the judge, prosecutor, defense counsel, and their treatment provider (Justice, 2021).

As you may have guessed, this program offers little incentive for individuals to complete the program successfully, and the frequency of check-in meetings provides very little oversight for those struggling with substance abuse addiction. Fundamentally, this program was set up to fail. This program is the only type of specialty court offered in the federal court system in the District of Maine and demands a complete overhaul in order to be effective.

It is important for courts and communities who wish to address societal causes of criminal behavior to explore successful and unsuccessful specialty court programs to ensure they don’t encounter the problems seen within the SWiTCH program in Maine. As with most social justice programs, it is important that all facets are well researched prior to implementation in order to achieve success. Without it, you are doomed to failure.


Center, N. D. (2020). Treatment Courts Across the United States. Retrieved from National Drug Court Resource Center: https://ndcrc.org/wp-content/uploads/2021/08/2020_NDCRC_TreatmentCourt_Count_Table_v8.pdf

Frailing, K. (2016, April 11). The Achievements of Specialty Courts in the United States. Retrieved from Scholars Strategy Network: https://scholars.org/contribution/achievements-specialty-courts-united-states

Justice, D. o. (2021). SWiTCH (Success With The Court’s Help). Retrieved from United States Probation and Pretrial Services – District of Maine: https://www.mep.uscourts.gov/switch-success-court%E2%80%99s-help



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