Researcher Michael Trood discusses insights from a systemic review and meta-analysis conducted with co-authors Ben Spivak and James Ogloff on judicial supervision.

Therapeutic jurisprudence practice assumes that judicial officers can play an important role in improving the lives of people appearing before them. A key element in the therapeutic jurisprudence practice is the use of judicial supervision. Judicial supervision, or judicial monitoring as it is sometimes known, involves a judicial officer monitoring defendants via designated review hearings and is commonly associated with drug courts and problem-solving courts, though it is also used on some mainstream court lists.

Judicial supervision allows judicial officers to directly interact with people who have offended and review their compliance with treatment and support plans with input from allied agencies. Through this process, the judicial officer can learn of an individual’s barriers to treatment and supports, develop rapport with and encourage the client, and use the authority of the court to respond swiftly to indiscretions.  

Unfortunately, the influence of judicial supervision on a court’s success has largely been overlooked in the research literature. Most of the research that has been conducted has taken place in the context of drug courts. It is unclear whether the findings are relevant to other courts that use judicial supervision, or indeed whether judicial supervision is an important part of rehabilitation regardless of where its used.

What does the research say about judicial supervision in problem-solving courts?

Our research involved examining whether judicial supervision was associated with reduced rates of recidivism and improved quality-of-life. We searched for the best available evidence comparing problem-solving courts that incorporated judicial supervision against courts that did not. We then systematically combined the evidence using a statistical technique known as meta-analysis to draw broad empirical conclusions about the effect of judicial supervision.

We found that judicial supervision was associated with a drop in recidivism of about one third. In particular, problem-solving courts that incorporated judicial supervision were associated with 33% less recidivism than courts that did not. This is an impressive and encouraging finding that suggests that judicial supervision can be helpful to defendants.

Beyond reductions in recidivism, we were interested in potential benefits pertaining to quality-of-life for accused. Unfortunately, only three studies examined quality-of-life outcomes that were of sufficient quality to include in our review. While the results of the quality-of-life studies were encouraging, there is simply not enough reliable evidence to draw conclusions about whether judicial supervision improves quality-of-life.

Where there was enough information reported in studies, we examined how differences in judicial supervision practices affected the outcomes. It is important to remember that judicial supervision is not practiced identically in every courtroom. Courts vary in their practice of judicial supervision with respect to a multitude of factors. These include, but are not limited to, how often sessions are conducted, whether the sessions offer individualised treatment and support for participants, support services available and the manner in which judges communicate with participants. We found that increased frequency of sessions at the start of the program (weekly as opposed to fortnightly) and individualised case management were both associated with strong reductions in recidivism.

What does this mean in practice?

If you are designing or running a problem-solving court program, the results suggest that incorporating intensive judicial supervision (i.e., weekly sessions for the first several weeks) that is tailored to the abilities and idiosyncrasies of individuals can enhance the effectiveness of your program. If you are interested in incorporating an individualised approach you may want to consider established frameworks of offender treatment such as the risk-need-responsivity model and McNeil and colleague’s approaches to offender treatment.

Where to from here?

While our results are encouraging, there are also extremely important limitations to our findings. Firstly, the extent to which recidivism was reduced varied considerably across different types of courts. We attribute this difference to the great variation between individual courts, their processes, their client population, staffing, and the resources available to them.

Perhaps the most important limitation on our findings concerns the quality of research examining the effect of judicial supervision. Almost all studies we investigated employed research designs that left them open to the possibility of biased results. This means that while the results are promising, they do need to be confirmed with better quality studies before we can confidently say that judicial supervision improves outcomes for defendants in problem-solving courts. To the extent that courts want to employ practices that are evidence-based, they must demand high-quality research (such as randomised control trials) that will provide guidance on how judges can best improve outcomes for people appearing before the court.

In closing, we are pleased to be able to provide some evidence that supports the work of judges who are therapeutically oriented. Our work suggests that what TJ oriented judges are doing can make a meaningful difference for the people that appear before them. In coming years, we look forward to seeing research that examines the practice and effect of judicial supervision in closer detail. Understanding the where, when and how of judicial supervision will help us to ensure that courts are supporting defendants in an evidence-informed way.

Contact: Michael Trood:  mtrood@swin.edu.au

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