What is a Specialty Court?

Specialty courts are specialized court sessions that offer an intensive probation program for people with mental health and/or substance use disorders.

Specialty courts aim to address the underlying problems that can cause criminal behavior.

Massachusetts operates several types of specialty courts:

  • Adult Drug Court
  • Juvenile Drug Court
  • Mental Health Court (also called Recovery with Justice)
  • Veterans Treatment Court
  • Homeless Court

There are two additional types of specialty courts that utilize alternative problem solving methods to reduce family conflict:

  • Family Drug Court
  • Family Resolutions Specialty Court

We teach accountability

We identify appropriate candidates for specialty court probation programs as early as possible – ideally at sentencing. In many ways, entering into a specialty courts program is more challenging than serving time in jail. That’s because we ask these probationers to address their addictions and the underlying causes of their past criminal behavior. In the process, participants learn how to make major lifestyle changes that can permanently end the cycle of destructive behavior.

Specialized problem solving

While some people refer to specialty courts as problem solving courts, the Massachusetts Judiciary believes that all of our courts are problem solving courts. Specialty courts teach probationers a more advanced level of problem solving, by addressing the underlying causes of criminal behavior, such as trauma, mental illness, and substance abuse. The teams who run specialty courts on a day-to-day basis focus on creating intensive, individualized treatment and probationary plans for the people under our supervision.

How it works: the process

We strive to identify potentially successful candidates as early as possible in the criminal justice system.

During a pending criminal case, defendants, probation officers, attorneys, or court personnel may request that a case transfer to a specialty court program.

At sentencing or a probation violation hearing, a probation officer uses a series of evidence-based assessment tools to screen and identify potential specialty court participants.

The defendant must agree to participate in the assessment after meeting with their lawyer. Candidates must agree to willingly participate in any specialty court program for which they are selected.

Specialty Court Clinicians may participate in assessing eligibility. The court may also rely on recent evaluations and other sources of information.

If a defendant is eligible, the specialty court session judge will review their case, and all parties will be heard regarding terms and final acceptance.

Specialty court programs vary in length

All specialty court sessions meet weekly in the beginning, with decreasing frequency of court meetings as the person successfully progresses through treatment.

Program lengths vary according to the individualized course of supervision and treatment, but on average:

  • Drug court probation programs: 18-24 months
  • Mental health court probation programs: 6-9 months
  • Veterans court probation programs: 9-16 months
  • Homeless court probation programs: Varies by individual. Homeless court is different from the above programs in that it focuses on default removal: resolving outstanding warrants or other issues that prevent people from getting jobs, services, or permanent housing.

Successes or good behaviors result in incentives such as fewer required court appearances, praise from the judge in court in front of peers, change in curfew or GPS monitoring (electronic bracelet).

Failures result in sanctions or punishments, which can include more frequent court appearances, increased drug testing, and/or writing an essay. It could also include jail time for not complying with the conditions of probation.

Who’s on the team?

Judge, probation officer, prosecutor (DA), defense counsel, treatment providers, and if available, an assigned specialty court clinician – typically a social worker (MSW or LICSW). A recovery coach (trained in addiction issues) might also be part of the team in court.