By Chris Adams

In an Oakland, California, courtroom, officers of the court often cheer the defendants before them.

It’s all part of the process.

The Superior Court of Alameda County is home to what’s known as a “reentry court,” one of a number of collaborative, or problem-solving, courts, that are changing the way criminal justice is administered. It’s still relatively new in California, but it’s the kind of change that may surface elsewhere.

“For those of you who are not from California, we predict that these types of reforms are coming your way,” the court’s Gavin O’Neill told National Press Foundation fellows.

O’Neill is the principal analyst in the Office of Collaborative Courts in Alameda County. Reentry court – which has been around for about a decade – is a sister to drug court, veterans court, mental health court and other non-adversarial tribunals that seek to increase the chance that somebody will become a functioning member of society – and therefore not return to prison.

The courts combine judicial oversight and monitoring with probation supervision and substance abuse treatment services. The goals are to reduce recidivism, substance abuse and other offenses.

In a site visit to Judge Margaret Fujioka’s reentry court, NPF fellows observed the court in action. The court’s day had started with a team meeting that included prosecutors, public defenders, substance abuse officials and parole officers. All worked together to devise a plan for those coming before the court.

“We work as a team,” Fujioka said.

The session in court was fairly straightforward – basically an update of where court participants were on things such as their sobriety, anger management sessions, and efforts to get or hold a job. Depending on a participant’s progress, they might get a stamp in their “passport” to signify moving up a level.

On the day of NPF’s visit, the docket was smooth, with few participants who had failed to follow through on their commitments. But it doesn’t always happen that way; tension is common, and the consequences of failure very real.

“Reentry court is the last house on the block before people go back to prison,” O’Neill said. “But if you do reentry court and are successful, you don’t have to go back to prison.