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What's So Special about Specialized Courts? The State and Social Change in Salt Lake City's Domestic Violence Court

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The nationwide growth in specialized or problem-solving courts, including drug courts, community courts, mental health courts, and domestic violence courts, among others, raises questions about the role of the state with respect to social change. According to social control theories of the state, especially theories of technocratic or rationalized justice, law is increasingly about efficiency, speed, and effectiveness. Specialized courts, however, take on a social problem approach to crime, seeking to address crime's “root causes” within the individual, the society, and the larger culture in ways more characteristic of social movements. Are specialized courts about social control or social change? This study examines state action in a specialized court in domestic violence in order to examine this question. I focus on a domestic violence court that arose in February 1997 and four years later employed full-time judges, prosecuting and defense attorneys, and numerous other staff to handle all misdemeanor domestic violence cases in Salt Lake County, Utah. I ask how legal, political, and community officials justify the court and its operation in order to examine some important issues about the role of the state and social change. Ultimately, I suggest that my findings about the complementary roles of social control and social change within domestic violence courts have implications not only for critical theories of technocratic justice and for the battered women's movement but also for democratic theories of the state.
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Document Type: Research Article

Affiliations: University of North Carolina

Publication date: 2005-06-01

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