Sex offense cases often present challenges to the police who investigate them, the district attorneys who prosecute them, the judges who adjudicate them, and the probation officers who supervise them. Unfortunately, the traditional criminal justice system approaches each of these pieces of the puzzle working in relative isolation, with their own protocols and procedures. In many instances these protocols and procedures are rooted in tradition and practice rather than on best practices and emerging research on sexual offenders.
In order to change this, dedicated sex offense bureaus in district attorney’s offices, special victims units in police departments, and, most recently, specialized sex offender supervision units of probation departments have been developed in many jurisdictions. Courts, however, have yet to explore the benefits of specialization. This is unfortunate because the problems with applying a generalist approach to the adjudication of sex offense cases are many: lack of specialized knowledge for decision-making, lack of adequate communication and coordination between the court and stakeholder agencies, lack of system accountability, and the resulting dissatisfaction of many victims with the criminal justice process. Judges lack adequate information to guide them in making critical decisions about specialized conditions of probation. Victims follow and track the criminal cases from courtroom to courtroom, judge to judge. Probation officers lack the tools to safely and effectively monitor offenders in the community and report violations and Assistant District Attorneys faced with an untrained judiciary sometimes plead cases down to non-sex offense, non-registerable, charges in order to secure convictions.
In light of the aforementioned frequent and complex challenges, the Center for Court Innovation and the Office of Court Administration spent several years examining the issues presented by sex offense cases to look for ways to improve the court response. The Center for Court Innovation is a nonprofit public-private partner of the New York State Court System and serves as the independent research and development arm for the Courts. The Office of Court Administration is the administrative arm of the New York State Court System responsible for supervising the administration and operations of the trial courts.
Center for Court Innovation staff interviewed judges, probation officers, victim advocates, prosecutors, defense attorneys and sex offense treatment providers. Additionally, the Center for Court Innovation reviewed data on sex offense arrests and dispositions and sentences. In the three pilot sites, many felony sex offense arrests resulted in misdemeanor convictions, and of those convictions 63% received community supervision as part of their sentence. In reviewing court practices, the key questions we asked were:
Is there a way for the court to be involved in enhancing public safety?
Is there a way to increase uniformity in how sex offense cases are handled by the court?
Is there room for improvement in coordination and communication among interested agencies in sex offense cases?
With those questions in mind, the Center for Court Innovation and the Office of Court Administration partnered to plan and implement the nation’s first three pilot specialized Sex Offense Courts.
In January of 2006, Nassau, Westchester and Oswego Counties became the first three jurisdictions in the country to pilot specialized Sex Offense Courts. To ensure that the most effective court practices possible were in place, court administrators and local stakeholders planned a unified approach to management of sex offense, relying on best and emerging practices in the field of sex offender management, with an emphasis on promoting offender accountability and public safety.
The mission of New York State Sex Offense Courts is to promote justice by providing a comprehensive approach to case resolution, increasing sex offender accountability, enhancing community safety and ensuring victim safety while protecting the rights of all litigants. The two main purposes and functions of the Sex Offense Court model are to promote best practices in the resolution of sex offense cases and to facilitate and enhance coordination and communication among relevant stakeholders.
Best practices in New York Sex Offense courts include the following core components:
- Keeping victims informed
- Scheduling cases promptly
- Dedicated, trained Judge
- Supervising defendants continuously
- Implementing additional judicial monitoring of cases post-conviction/plea
- Building strong relationships with service providers
- Coordinating with probation departments
- Convening regular meetings with criminal justice agencies and service providers
- Providing court personnel and partners with education and training
The New York Sex Offense Courts incorporate all of the above listed core concepts, and are designed to work with key stakeholders such as defense attorneys, prosecutors, probation, victim agencies, sex offender-specific treatment providers, and polygraph examiners. The Sex Offense Court model handles all cases that include a felony level sex offense charge or where the court has determined that the underlying facts of a case warrant the inclusion of the case in Sex Offense Court. The Courts hear cases from their inception and early identification through disposition, and monitoring.
As important as it is to say what the New York Sex Offense Courts are, it is also important to point out what they are not. Sex Offense Courts are not designed as alternatives to incarceration, they are not diversion courts, and they are not treatment/rehabilitative courts. Instead, Sex Offense Courts are more akin to domestic violence courts; defendants do not opt-in but rather all cases of a certain nature or charge are automatically routed for their entire processing and adjudication. Sex Offense Courts, like domestic violence courts, emphasize the need for accountability of the offenders and the increasing of public/community safety.
As mentioned, one of the key elements and best practices of Sex Offense Courts is education and training for judges and non-judicial personnel. Judicial training is integral to enhancing the court’s ability to handle complex sex offense cases in a consistent and comprehensive manner. By understanding patterns of offending behavior, the prevalence of crossover behaviors, and effective interventions, such as the containment model of sex offender management, judges and lawyers can make informed decisions and appropriately assess special conditions of probation.
Another best practice feature of Sex Offense Courts is the use of judicial monitoring. Court monitoring includes rapid calendaring of cases on probation, immediate communication of compliance or non-compliance of court mandates, swift response to violations of conditions of probation and SORA, and consideration of a graduated sanctions scheme.
Given the reality that many sex offenders are sentenced to community supervision, Sex Offense Courts work with probation and parole departments to increase their participation, enhance coordination and communication between the court and the supervision agents, to promote the use of pre-sentence tools (investigations, risk assessments, polygraph, etc.) and utilize special sex offender conditions.
The Sex Offense Courts work closely with local service providers to facilitate victim access to advocacy, counseling and other social services. Best practices dictate that a victim-centered approach is key to any sex offense containment strategy, and should guide the framework for sex offender management and the development of a Sex Offense Court. The Sex Offense Court model was driven in part by the involvement and input of the victim agencies who expressed interest in specialized court practices and quicker resolution to cases and violations. In some jurisdictions, a sex offense case could be transferred back and forth between and among multiple courtrooms before several different judges throughout the duration of the case; making the process all the more confusing and frustrating for victims. The Sex Offense Court model eliminates this concern and is designed to address the needs of the victims, and includes the victim advocacy agencies in ongoing training, planning and operations meetings.
Because the New York State Sex Offense Courts are the first of their kind nationwide (with the notable exception of the few Juvenile Sex Offense Court models), research and evaluation plans are in place to determine the effectiveness of these new strategies. The Center for Court Innovation has worked with the New York State Court System to design a court application tool to be used in all Sex Offense Courts. Cases are tracked and data is collected to allow for a future in-depth evaluation of court procedures. We hope to provide answers to the following research questions:
How were sex offense cases handled prior to the implementation of the Sex Offense Courts?
What the process was for developing and implementing Sex Offense Courts?
What are Sex Offense Courts ‘best practices’?
What is the impact of the Sex Offense Courts on victims?
By utilizing best practices and current research on sex offenders, we are optimistic that the Sex Offense Court model will improve case outcomes, including victim and stakeholder satisfaction with the criminal justice system response and will provide for increased accountability of sex offenders in New York and, as a result, increased community safety.