Thursday, February 27, 2014


Lately criminal law has been swamped with specialized courts to handle defendant's with special needs. It began with juvenile courts, then moved on to drug courts, where one Florida judge will even bake cakes for Defendants to help them stop abusing drugs.

Now in Tampa Bay and Florida on an experimental basis one can find mental health courts, domestic violence courts, combat veterans courts and my favorite - watching a few boisterous judges and lawyers firing salvos while ambling around tennis courts. 

In Pinellas County Drug Court Judge Farnell celebrates when Defendants are finally drug free by hosting cake and cookies from Mazzaros.
Let Defendant's Eat Cake
The idea behind these courts is commendable. Find the root cause of the criminal behavior. Push the defendant to accept responsibility for the criminal behavior by offering a plea agreement that is too good to pass up. Often a plea bargain may not include much, if any, time in prison. Instead there is a carrot or to be more exact a carrot cake and stick approach. Help if offered thru counseling, therapy, medication during long years of probation with frequent, expected and unfortunate probation violations each of which forces the defendant to remember how close prison may be.

The key is having an effective, sympathetic judge who really cares about the lives of those before her and who aims to make a difference in those lives not only by punishment by helping the defendants to make actual changes in their lives. A fine example of how this should work can be found in the Pinellas Drug Court courtroom of Judge Dee Ana Farnell who celebrates with cake, cookies and ice cream she brings for defendants and their families when some of her defendants are finally taken off probation. Remarkable. It's exactly the kind of forward thinking that the criminal court system needs.

Yet, I'm not inclined to believe that specialized courts are the complete answer. Rather than merely categorize and subdivide particular groups and subgroups of defendants, why not try to help each and every one of them? Even those, perhaps especially those who have committed a violent crime? Wouldn't it be worth while to ferret out the root causes of each criminal act. And where the causes are intractable, then give prison. Where the problems are solvable, then solve them.

What Judge Farnell is doing in drug court, is what every judge should be aspiring to do at every level. Temper punishment with help. Find the root of the criminal conduct. Then send the defendant to prison if you must for those defendants who can not or will not be helped. But for those who can be helped find brave judges who aren't afraid to show mercy, temperance, compassion, understanding; judges who are ready to bake cakes for defendants in celebration of the best results.