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The Hidden Power of Courts That Heal

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This blog post is about legal scholarship, vision, leadership, innovation and system change. One may think I am referring to some new corporate management guru. I can assure you, if Therapeutic Jurisprudence (TJ) was featured in a profit-centered arena, airport newsstands would be packed with a variety of books on "How to lead through TJ." Yet this work sits soundly in the legal sphere. Moreover, to make it a bit more removed from the mainstream, I believe TJ is best known in the academic sector.

So, let this be a coming out of sorts. TJ is a revolutionary and global law reform philosophy, developed by two visionary mental health and disability law professors, David B. Wexler and the late Bruce J. Winick, who had a shared belief and vision that courts could act as therapeutic agents (see Wexler David B.; Winick Bruce J.: "Essays in Therapeutic Jurisprudence" Carolina Academic Press, 2001; and Winick, Bruce J., "Therapeutic Jurisprudence and Problem Solving Courts," Fordham Urban Law Journal, 2002).

While this scholarly theory was initially intended to soften and reduce the anti-therapeutic affect upon individuals subject to involuntary civil commitment proceedings (see Winick, B, "Civil Commitment: A Therapeutic Model," 2005), it quickly morphed into the theoretical base to support and convey the goals of the newly minted drug treatment court model, rolled out in Miami (1989). As stated by (ret.) Judge Peggy Fulton Hora, "TJ provided the foundation for drug court innovation." A groundbreaking court innovation that offered jail diversion through an opportunity for treatment over punishment (see Hora, Peggy F., Schma, William, G., Rosenthal, J. "Therapeutic Jurisprudence and The Drug Court Movement").

Over the past several decades, courts in the U.S. and internationally have relied on TJ to help tackle the most complex and vexing social problems. "Where a policy vacuum and resulting human problems were dropped on the doorsteps of the courthouse for judges to resolve," as Professor Winick so often remarked (see Bruce Winick: An Agent of Social Change on Through TJ, judges and legal actors can reasonably and positively leverage court processes to offer hope and real solutions that promote public safety and restore lives.

Like a procedural jaws of life, TJ created a corridor and procedural space for courts to engage in actionable problem solving, in whatever context, to provide a chance to connect to real solutions which fundamentally entail assumption of personal responsibility and transformative personal life changes. Further, and paramount, TJ has the potential to offer victims a meaningful opportunity for court participation, engagement and process for healing.

Since its emergence in the late '80s, TJ has been the theoretical and procedural justice power pack which fueled drug courts, mental health courts, domestic violence courts, family courts, juvenile treatment courts, veteran's courts and hybrid models, for those court jurisdictions interested in adding problem solving courts to their array of court services. The accelerated growth of problem solving courts has led to creative problem solving justice strategies that are limitless and crosses the boundaries of the legal system (see Lerner-Wren, G., "Problem Solving Justice: Reducing Recidivism and Promoting Public Safety"). These innovations have saved countless lives, reduced costs of incarceration, and led to an evidence base which includes related restorative justice and smart justice strategies, as part of a national policy to reduce mass incarceration in America (see "Vera Institute of Justice," Recalibrating Justice: A Review of 2013 State Sentencing and Correction Trends, July 2014).

So, what's next? One of my favorite quotes from the late Steve Jobs, "I think if you do something and it turns out pretty good, then you should do something else wonderful, not dwell on it for too long. Just figure out what's next." Recently, I heard from Professor David Wexler. He is in the process of taking TJ mainstream. A highly distinguished and diverse group of U.S. and international experts have joined in this justice effort. The goal is to spread TJ techniques to courts of general jurisdiction, where legal actors, support staff and students will have the opportunity to learn, participate, and enjoy applying TJ in the mainstream and reap the benefits of helping those they serve. A new website has been created for those interested in joining or exploring this effort to improve mainstream courts and tribunals using therapeutic justice approaches.