Guns are in the news lately. The USA is a big country with a lot of guns, some of which are used to kill large numbers of people, generating news reports. Some are used in confrontations that become high-profile trials, generating more news reports.
From Newtown CT to Sanford FL, the headlines have driven debate about guns and gun violence. The debate in turn drives more headlines about guns – so guns are in the news. But in the USA, guns are always in the news. Although the Sandy Hook school shooting and the George Zimmerman trial make headlines, guns are used to commit crimes every day. Unless they’re murders, they are not the leadoff story on the evening news; they’re below the fold or buried deep in the daily paper. But they are there.
Debate about guns in the USA includes competing solutions, from “no guns!” to “more guns!” with many shades in between. Those arguments are beyond the scope of the court system – and of this blog. The court and criminal justice systems don’t set policy about guns or anything else. But they do deal with the consequences of gun violence.
Although courts can’t make policy based on the news or current public debate and opinion, they can implement procedures to better deal with current trends. When certain types of cases become common, the criminal justice system pays attention to them. The result can be new approaches to those types of cases, some of which don’t follow the typical “crime -> punishment” model.
This blog has noted several different kinds of courts that address specific types of crimes. These courts are not really separate courts; they’re separate divisions or departments of existing courts, with unique procedures matched to these specific cases. They are called “problem-solving courts” or “accountability courts” and they include Drug Courts, Family Dependency Treatment Courts, Mental Health Courts, and Veterans Courts. A common theme of these specialty courts is the recognition that drugs or alcohol or mental illness can be treated, and that such treatment may be more effective than incarceration in preventing future offenses. Another common theme is the active involvement of the judge in prescribing and monitoring the treatment, alongside the probation officers, counselors, educators, and other professionals involved in the program
Gun Courts are a newer type of problem-solving court, and they take a different approach. While drugs or alcohol can lead to crime, guns make the crime worse. While other types of problem-solving courts usually substitute treatment for incarceration, gun courts usually include incarceration, and may or may not include educational or counseling components. The difference is primarily between adult and juvenile gun courts. Adult gun courts mean quick trials (to get offenders off the streets as soon as possible) and severe sentences (to make it clear that use of guns to commit crimes carries serious consequences). Juvenile gun courts more closely resemble other types of problem-solving courts, because they use education and counseling in addition to punishment.
A good example of a juvenile gun court is found in Jefferson County, Alabama. Like other problem-solving courts, it’s a collaboration between the court, law enforcement, schools, counselors, probation, and the Department of Youth Services. Unlike other types of problem-solving courts – but in line with other gun courts – it always includes a form of incarceration. For less serious offenses, it’s called “boot camp” but it lasts 30 days. While the juvenile is required to attend boot camp and other classes about the dangers and consequences of guns, the parents are also required to attend classes.
Other gun courts may be found in Providence, RI (the first such court, created in 1994), Boston, MA, and Brooklyn, NY, and Detroit MI. Look for links to these and other types of problem-solving courts on CourtReference.