Specialty Dockets Offer a Therapeutic Approach to Case Resolution

Hamilton County Municipal Court is one of the busiest courts in this jurisdiction. In 2022, more than 16,000 misdemeanors, 2,500 OVI offenses, and 45,000 traffic charges were filed or reactivated in municipal court. These charges are typically resolved before one of the five magistrates or 14 municipal court judges using the traditional, adversarial process. County and city prosecutors and defense attorneys act in their respective roles taking cases through trial or plea negotiations. However, by using specialized dockets, a number of these cases are resolved in a non-adversarial process.

Hamilton County Municipal Court has four specialized dockets: Change Court, Mental Health Court, Veterans Treatment Court, and the newly formed Recovery Docket. These dockets offer a more therapeutic approach to providing court supervision and appropriate treatment to the parties charged with offenses. These dockets allow the supervising judges to balance their duties of protecting public safety and ensuring compliance with the law, along with recognition that certain offenders may need additional help due to mental illness, substance abuse, and/or trauma. To participate, offenders must first admit their responsibility to the charges, by entering either a guilty or no contest plea. Each of the four probation-based programs focus on sobriety and stability. The programs combine inpatient and outpatient treatments, along with a detailed plan of advancement through various phases. Rewards and sanctions are used to guide the offenders through treatment. 

Each of the four programs has unique requirements, but some are shared by all four. Referrals for assessment for any of these dockets can be made by any judge, attorney, probation officer, police officer, or community partner (i.e., clinic, JFS, service providers, or the pretrial department within Hamilton County Municipal Court). Once a referral is made, an assessment is conducted to see if the offender meets the docket requirements, such as the type of criminal offense, diagnosis of a mental health condition, or prior service as a veteran. Certain convictions may make the offender ineligible. Even though program requirements vary, the offender is usually required to observe a docket session so they can see first-hand how the docket functions and what is required for participation. The defendant must agree to the docket treatment terms. These dockets connect participants to government benefits, medical and mental health services, and require that the participants successfully progress through a multi-level treatment program. All four dockets employ social workers, probation officers, and medical professionals to navigate the needs of the participants. Most of these programs require residency/domicile in Hamilton County. All four specialized dockets require a greater commitment of time and dedication than that of a typical probation schedule. 

Successful completion of a docket is not guaranteed. Participation begins with weekly court appearances, coupled with mandatory treatment meetings. The participants work with treatment providers, probation officers, counselors, and clinicians throughout the year-long process. As they progress through their program’s phases, court appearances lessen and agency appointments and individual responsibility for treatment needs increase. The judges, working with their team of providers, guide the defendants and administer sanctions as needed. If a participant does not meet the program’s requirements, despite attempts to redirect towards success, removal from the program may result. Violations of the program’s terms may result in revocation of probation and imposition of a jail term. Those who complete the program are typically healthier, sober, and able to hold stable employment. 

Treatment terms vary by program. 

CHANGE Court offenders typically have a conviction or arrest for loitering, soliciting or prostitution, and/or a history that involves these actions. It is an intensive program, taking on average 18 months to two years to complete. After completing the program, the court expunges all criminal misdemeanor convictions and may expunge felony convictions. Judge Janaya Trotter Bratton currently oversees CHANGE court.

Veterans Court is reserved for those who have served in the Armed Forces and now have criminal charges pending rooted in substance abuse or trauma related to their military service. Participation typically lasts one year. Successful completion of the program may result in reduction of charges or expungement. Judge Brad Greenberg currently oversees Veterans Court.

Mental Health Court participants have a diagnosed mental health condition for which medication and/or counseling is required. The requirements for successful completion are tailored to each individual and typically require one year to complete. Successful completion may result in expunging of the charges. Due to the number of participants, there are two mental health dockets. Judge William Mallory and Judge Gwen Bender currently oversee Mental Health Court.

The Recovery Docket is the newest program with Hamilton County Municipal Court. This docket is reserved for those “last chance” candidates; those with a lengthy history of prior offenses, unsuccessful prior attempts at sobriety, and typically unsuccessful attempts at probation in the traditional format. The current convictions must be for first- or second-degree misdemeanors, although lower-level offenses may be included. This docket anticipates a one-year commitment for successful completion, but that can vary as needed. Expungement of the convictions is not automatic, but may occur if eligible. Judge Jackie Ginocchio currently oversees the Recovery Docket.

For additional information about the Specialized Dockets, please refer to the Hamilton County Municipal Court website or contact the judges’ courtrooms associated with the programs.

Judge Bender has served as a Hamilton County Municipal Court Judge since 2017. She currently also presides over one of the municipal court mental health court dockets.