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This Judge Has a Mission: Keep Defendants Alive

This Judge Has a Mission: Keep Defendants Alive
An experimental court in Buffalo steers opioid users into treatment instead of jail. The judge uses his own recovery story as an example.

There are two kinds of defendants who enter Judge Craig D. Hannah’s courtroom: Those who stand on the far side of the bench to have their cases considered in the usual way, and those invited to step closer. Close enough to shake the judge’s hand or shout obscenities in his face, depending on their mood that day.

Both kinds are facing criminal charges, but those in the second group have volunteered to take part in an experiment where the primary goal is to save their lives. Arrested for crimes related to addiction, they are participants in what is believed to be the nation’s first opioid court.

Unlike typical drug courts, which can end in punishment if defendants relapse, this one recognizes that failure is part of the recovery process.

Its measure of success — preventing death — is arguably a low bar. Then again, few initiatives have made much of a dent in an epidemic that is killing more people each year than car accidents do. The criminal justice system may not be the ideal place to address addiction, but the reality is that it is a place where drug users are a captive audience. And the court, by linking with nonprofits, offers treatment for those who could not otherwise afford it. Court systems around the country are watching Buffalo as a potential model.

Participants are required to appear daily before Judge Hannah, who was himself once addicted to drugs. “I’m going to be your new best friend,” he tells them. “So I’m going to start calling you by your first name from now on. See you tomorrow. Keep up the good work.”


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