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Ending the Drama

Spring 2010 | By Eric Nelson. Photo by $photocredit.value.

It was after being deloused and shaved bald to begin his second stint in prison that Jack made the commitment to live for the greater good instead of simply his own.

Stripped of freedom and dignity, but not the capacity for hope and change, he began to grow back his hair for Locks of Love, an organization that makes wigs for children suffering from cancer and other diseases.

When Jack eventually reappeared before the judge to ask for a sentence reduction and another chance, he wore his heart on his sleeve and a ponytail to his waist.

What happened next is one of numerous non-fictional revelations in Problem Solving Courts, a new book by sociology professor JoAnn Miller and Indiana judge Donald Johnson that explores a novel approach to criminal justice: punish, but also rehabilitate and reconnect.

Using a drama turgical metaphor that draws on Shakespeare and other classic works, the authors present detailed case studies and research showing how the theater of law can provide alternatives to incarceration and end the tragic cycle of recidivism.

According to Miller and Johnson’s analysis, successful problem-solving courts require three key elements: judicial leaders willing to dispense measured justice, offenders sincerely capable of rehabilitation, and public and private support systems that help them reenter society and become productive citizens.

“Every case has its own unique plot twists, but the judge, the convicted, and the community always play the lead roles,” says Miller. “In the best problem-solving courts, the individual transformations can be just as dramatic.”

Jack’s story had a happy ending. Under the court’s thoughtful direction, he shed both his locks and his criminal tendencies, earning the love of his family and the trust of his peers and neighbors along the way.

Of course, not every act concludes so neatly. As Johnson notes, Indiana releases about 17,000 people from its prison system annually, and within three years some 68 percent of them are arrested for another crime. Of those, nearly 43 percent are returned to a long-term facility.

But within the problem-solving court Johnson presided over in Tippecanoe County for three years, the recidivism rate ranged from 26 percent in 2006 to just 17 percent in 2008. Although sobering, those figures are better than most reentry courts that he and his Purdue collaborator studied across the state and country.

“What made the difference here —and what continues to make a difference — is the partnership between progressive community leaders and a world-class university,” says Miller. “That’s a powerful combination for change.”

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