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The Fix

The Case for Gun Courts

In a promising approach to curbing gun violence, some cities ask specialized judges to choose social programs over prison time for firearms offenders.

Mayor Lovely Warren is trying to help her city of Rochester, New York, heal after a shooting last month at a Boys & Girls Club left three dead and four injured. In a press conference last week announcing the arrest of a suspect, Warren unveiled a slew initiatives aimed at reducing gun violence. Among the policies she wants to institute is a separate division within the local judicial district that would focus on gun crimes. It’s what’s known as a gun court.

Policymakers and judges alike see promise in so-called “problem solving courts” that do more than reach verdicts and hand down sentences. The best known variety deals with drug offenders, and place guilty offenders in rehab treatment programs rather than prisons.

The concept of gun courts can be traced back to Providence, Rhode Island, in 1994, when longtime mayor Buddy Cianci ordered all cases involving firearms to be overseen by a single judge. Defendants would appear before the court within three to four months as opposed to the year-long delay that can be standard in regular criminal courts. The initiative was specifically aimed at reducing the time between arrest and trial for potentially dangerous offenders, and not cloaked in the argot of social work encountered in descriptions of specialized drug courts. Cianci, a machine politician known mostly for his own criminal record, boasted that once the court got started, “If you use a gun…in my city, you’re going to jail fast.”

There was logic to the often bombastic Cianci’s hard line: Gun offenses pose a more direct threat to the public than the drug or prostitution charges disposed of in specialized legal proceedings. But some gun courts elsewhere are more concerned with redirecting defendants to violence-free lives out of prison, and what they share in common with other specialized courts is an understanding among experts that the standard model of criminal prosecution might not have the desired outcome.

Done right, all problem solving courts are built on certain core principles, as laid out by the Center for Court Innovation. They rely on expert knowledge just as much as legal know-how, engage with community groups, collaborate with other government agencies and social service providers, stress accountability to offenders, and are just as concerned with social outcomes as they are with due process.

Different cities, different calibers of programs

These courts are experimental, and they’re designed differently across jurisdictions. While Providence instituted its gun court to speed up the criminal justice process so that cases would come to trial before defendants could disappear, New York City started its gun court in 2003 to provide a venue for actually prosecuting criminal weapons possession, a charge that is frequently dropped or results in a very light sentence. In contrast, Birmingham, Alabama, created a court for juvenile offenders to discourage recidivism by redirecting them from typical detention to juvenile boot camps where they wake up at 5 a.m. for an intense schedule of physical exercise, counseling, journaling, and character-building workshops. Philadelphia’s gun court hews closest to the drug court model, providing those who plead guilty with access to social services while requiring them to submit to extensive monitoring.

Because gun courts are designed like their drug court predecessors to solve well-defined problems, their effectiveness can be directly measured. After Philadelphia introduced its gun court in 2005 to reduce recidivism for those defendants whose most serious charge was a violation of the state’s gun law, the Uniform Firearms Act, researchers set out to evaluate whether arrestees were actually staying out of trouble. They found that defendants who went through the court in the first 18 months of its development were almost half as likely to be rearrested as defendants charged with similar crimes before the program began.

So what’s the verdict on specialized courts?

In the case of gun courts, it’s very much still out. They appear quite effective at achieving their more limited goals — speeding up the adjudication process, reducing individual rates of recidivism — but not so much at the larger goal of reducing overall violence and gun crime. Despite the successes of Philadelphia’s gun court, a dissertation examining its effect on the city at large found no statistical evidence that total violent crime or illegal gun-carrying fell in the years after it was introduced. Though every judge interviewed by the PhD candidate conducting the study was enthusiastic about the gun court, one had a theory for why the special docket had not had not reduced shootings: “There’s just too many guns out there. You can’t arrest your way out of the problem, you can’t confiscate your way out of the problem.”

[Photo: Flickr user Chris Guy]