Tuesday, August 14, 2012

Report from Oxford


Last week, Jane Donoghue of the University of Oxford convened an international symposium on problem-solving courts and therapeutic jurisprudence.  It was a small, academic gathering, but several countries were represented nonetheless: Spain, England, Scotland, Holland, the US.  I was one of two Americans, along with David Wexler from the University of Puerto Rico.  (If you are interested in a look at Wexler's presentation, check out "New Wine in New Bottles.")

I've participated in a few academic gatherings devoted to problem-solving justice in my time.  I'm not generally a defensive person, but I often have to discipline myself not to feel attacked at these kinds of events.  In general, I find that many legal academics perform a similar maneuver when it comes to problem-solving courts: attempting to demonstrate how a putatively progressive idea is actually deeply regressive and harmful to defendants.  

The academic objections to problem-solving courts seem to boil down to two issues: first, a concern that, because of problem-solving courts, government money that should be given to community centers and social workers will instead be spent on the criminal justice system, and second, a concern that by unleashing judicial discretion, problem-solving courts give judges the freedom to run amok in a paternalistic effort to "cure" poor people and minorities.

These objections did indeed get expressed at Oxford, but I didn't find the tenor of the symposium overly negative. I think a lot of the credit goes to Eric Miller, a professor at St. Louis University School of Law, who aired many criticisms of problem-solving courts but did so in a manner that exhibited humor, warmth, and sensitivity.  In truth, I found myself agreeing with much of Miller's paper: he raises legitimate concerns about proportionality and due process and the unnecessary extension of state power that all problem-solving advocates would do well to keep in the back of their minds. 

Perhaps the most exciting part of the gathering for me was learning from Cyrus Tata of the University of Strathclyde about the growing interest in problem-solving justice in Scotland.   Also exciting was meeting so many people who had either visited one of our demonstration projects, read our written work, or met someone from the Center for Court Innovation at a conference -- it felt like the Center for Court Innovation truly has a global reach. 

In general, Oxford lived up to all of my best preconceived notions. The conference was at Balliol College, which is beyond lovely.  Jane Donoghue has gotten a book deal to publish the papers that were presented during the symposium, so soon enough you will be able to test my version of events against the written record.