For courts with limited resources that are interested in problem-solving, Buffalo (N.Y.) City Court offers an intriguing model. With no extra funds, in 1995 the court began to identify defendants’ social problems and link them to needed services. Today, Buffalo’s innovative C.O.U.R.T.S. (Court Outreach Unit: Referral and Treatment Services) program links together more than 130 community-based providers and makes more than 6,000 referrals a year.
The program, a collaborative effort of Buffalo City Court and the City of Buffalo, provides judges with an on-site court-based screening and referral service. “We’re basically a treatment and communication broker for the court. And you name it, we got it. We basically can meet any need of a person who comes through the doors,” Director Hank Pirowski says. The program links individuals coming through the justice system with a full range of social services, including drug treatment, mental health treatment, medical care, anger management, family counseling, youth counseling, domestic violence and battering programming, vocational/educational services, and housing.
The idea for the program came about in 1994, when the Hon. Thomas Amodeo became chief judge for the Buffalo City Court. Frustrated by the haphazard way defendants were being placed into treatment, the lack of a centralized tracking system for the court, and increased recidivism rates driven in part by the crack epidemic, he started talking to court staff and city officials about new ways of doing business. According to Amodeo, the court had two major problems: first, reports weren’t coming back to the judge, and second, the court needed a regimented screening system to ensure that everyone who needed treatment received it.
Treatment provider Hank Pirowski spearheaded a study of how the court could best link clients to services. “That’s when we came up with this idea, to get all our partnering agencies involved,” Pirowski says. The court then called together a meeting with over 60 area providers to get them on board, explaining the concept for the program and convincing providers that if they would co-locate staff members in space provided by the court, defendants would have easier access to their treatment systems. “On the staffing side we started the program with no dollars,” Pirowski says. “Zero. I was given a closet in the courthouse that still had wash basins in it. But the city gave me a team of six people, two from the Division of Substance Abuse Services and four from the Division for Youth, and my partnering agencies donated staff at no additional cost to the court.”
Today there are 26 full- and part-time workers on site, only four of them from the Office of Court Administration. “Without the community partnership, we wouldn’t exist,” says Pirowski, who also helps oversee Buffalo’s drug court and mental health court.
C.O.U.R.T.S. staff interview defendants while in custody, relaying the information to court advocates, who make recommendations to judges. The judges make the final call on whether a defendant is appropriate for C.O.U.R.T.S. or not. Defendants referred to the program are placed with a participating member of the treatment consortium. Placement is based not on which agency performed the assessment but on the defendant’s individual needs, geographical location and ability to pay. No one is allowed to refer defendants to his or her own agency, though the judge may approve such a placement if it is clearly the best choice for the defendant. Managed care partners are on site to make the process run more smoothly. And once defendants are placed, case managers monitor defendants’ compliance with tailored, individual service plans, and report treatment outcomes to the judge.
By the summer of 2006 the C.O.UR.T.S. program had made over 40,000 referrals, and was referring 6,000 cases to social service providers each year. From 2000 to 2005, defendants completed over 75,500 hours of community service, including graffiti removal and demolition of crack houses. The value of labor contributed to the community during that time was estimated to be $453,000. The program has received the New York State Bar Association Public Service Award for the Furtherance of Justice and the U.S. Conference of Mayors’ City Livability Award.