Penn State Harrisburg criminal justice faculty to study drug, veterans courts

HARRISBURG, Pa. -- Anne Douds, Eileen Ahlin and Dan Howard, criminal justice faculty members at Penn State Harrisburg, have been approved by Dauphin County commissioners to study the county’s specialty courts for veteran and drug offenders. At the commissioners’ behest, they will also study offenders with mental health problems.

The study, which will begin this summer and finish at the end of the year, will document the effectiveness of the courts, in an effort to improve the treatment of veterans and drug offenders.

According to Howard, the problem-solving court model eliminates the traditional adversarial model of courtroom procedure in favor of a team-based approach. A judge, representatives for prosecution and defense, probation officers and treatment personnel come together as a team to monitor offenders over a period of months or even years. Treatment, support, participant camaraderie and in-program punishments help motivate offenders toward the successful completion of the program.

“This model is fairly new, beginning around 1989 with the first drug court. Veterans courts are even more recent, with the first opening in the late 2000s,” Howard added. “At this point there are very few studies that document the process or effectiveness of the veterans courts, and that's what we're hoping to do with this study.”

Pennsylvania has the fourth-highest population of veterans in the nation, many of whom suffer from post-traumatic stress or traumatic brain injury. Those conditions make veterans more likely to become involved in the court system.

The veterans court, which includes the use of mentors and treatment programs, helps veterans who have committed crimes get help with their problems so they can resume productive lives. Charges can be reduced or records cleared if the terms of the program are completed. The drug court operates in a similar fashion, and helps those charged overcome their addictions.

“The logic of the problem-solving court model is that offending can be a symptom of an underlying mental health issue,” Douds said. “If a group of offenders share that issue, it is possible for a court to specialize in the treatment and support while also dealing with offending, in an effort to reduce offending in a cost-effective and socially beneficial way.”

The professors have received a $30,000 grant from the Justice and Safety Institute to finance the study.

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Last Updated June 20, 2014