Imagine your friend, Alex, has bipolar disorder. Alex feels like the medication he has been taking gives him headaches and that getting high on pills works better, and he chooses to stop taking it as a result. Very soon, Alex’s symptoms begin to come back. To you he seems anxious and maybe even impulsive, but maybe that is just the spontaneous Alex you’ve always known. One night, after a lot of push from his friends, he decides to get high and go out with them to blow off some steam from the stressful week he has had. Alex gets into a fight, and is arrested and charged with aggravated assault after the fight ended with the other person going to the hospital.
This is where criminal justice diversion programs, like problem-solving courts, can come into play. Problem-solving courts are becoming more and more prevalent, with almost 4,000 courts  dedicated to deferring specific populations of offenders with mental illness or substance abuse problems, veterans, those with domestic abuse charges, prostitutes, and many more. While there are many types of problem-solving courts, they share one overarching goal, to treat the underlying causes of criminal behavior and foster desistance from crime. Mental illness itself doesn’t cause crime, but untreated symptoms such as anger and impulsivity can exhibit themselves as criminal behavior, resulting in involvement with law enforcement or even conviction and incarceration . The structure of problem-solving courts allow time for defendants to talk directly with their judge on a weekly basis, live in the community, have a job, and receive treatment.
While problem-solving courts are in no way a novel approach to adjudicating offenders, the most commonly thought of courts address substance use (alcohol & drug court) and mental health. Over time there have been at least 10 other types of problem solving courts created, addressing a multitude of populations such as offenders in the stage of reentry, homeless, veterans, juveniles, and many more. However, mental health courts remain one of the most prevalent types of problem-solving court, which defers offenders away from traditional incarceration (jail and prison), in order to get them access to community-based treatment .
Being in a problem-solving court is similar to being on probation in that an individual is assigned to a case manager and have weekly responsibilities. Alex, who I mentioned earlier will have to go to court and be required to see his case manager weekly. He will be required to take regular drug tests, he will be required to hold a job, maintain housing, and will be able to continue going to school. As a result, there are incentives when he follows the rules and successfully completes the requirements of the court. Incentives can be in the form of small monetary gift certificates, paper awards for recognition, and celebrations when they “graduate” the program. Alternatively, when individuals break rules, they can be sanctioned with jail time or more frequent drug/alcohol tests. The benefit of participation in a problem-solving court, is that Alex will not have to be incarcerated, his charges will be either reduced or dropped, and most importantly he can get the help and stability he needs in his life.
Research has found these types of courts to be effective in their ability to reduce criminal offending . Some authors suggest that the reason is they take a therapeutic stance to adjudication, allow defendants the ability to have their side of the story heard, they are treated with dignity and respect, as well as the perception of fair decision-making from the actors of the court . When individuals feel like they understood the process, even if the outcome is not what they had hoped for, they are more likely to feel that they were treated fairly and a just decision was made.
 Huddleston, W., & Marlowe, D. B. (2011). Painting The current picture. Alexandria, VA: National Drug Court Institute.
 Almquist, L., & Dodd, E. (2009). Mental health courts: A guide to research-informed policy and practice. New York: Council of State Governments, Justice Center.
 Epperson, M., Wolf, N., Morgan, R., Fisher, W., Frueh, B., & Huening, J. (2014). Envisioning the next generation of behavioral health and criminal justice interventions. International Journal of Law and Psychiatry, 37(2014), 427-438. doi:10.1016/j.ilp.2014.4.02.015
 Peterson, J., Skeem, J., Kennealy, P., Bray, B., & Zvonkovic, A. (2014). How often and how consistently do symptoms directly precede criminal behavior among offenders with mental illness? Law and Human Behavior, 38(5), 439-449. doi:10.1037/lhb0000075
 Mitchell, O., Wilson, D. B., Eggers, A., & MacKenzie, D. L. (2012). Assessing the effectiveness of drug courts on recidivism: A meta-analytic review of traditional and non-traditional drug courts. Journal of Criminal Justice, 40(1), 60-71.
 Sarteschi, C. M., Vaughn, M. G., & Kim, K. (2011). Assessing the effectiveness of mental health courts: A quantitative review. Journal of Criminal Justice, 39(1), 12-20.
 Tyler, Tom R., 2006. Why people obey the law. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press.