This Judge Has a Mission: Keep Defendants Alive

This Judge Has a Mission: Keep Defendants Alive

Judge Hannah is a generation older than most of those who appear in his court. He was once hooked on cocaine, but stopped using drugs in his early 20s.

In court, he does not speak in legal jargon. The defendants are his peers. He talks about the Bills, the city’s popular football team, or the cold weather. He asks them how they are feeling, how he can help. He does not hurry anyone along.

Friends ask him why opioid users, who are largely white, get gentler treatment than crack users, who were disproportionately black, did in the 1980s.

“I think we learned,” says the judge, who is African-American. “We locked up a generation of young black men, and then when they get out, they are dumped back in a community with no marketable skills. This time, people realized that this ain’t just affecting the boys in the ’hood anymore.”

His own addiction ruined his chance to become a Marine Corps officer. The night before his military physical to begin officer training, he used cocaine because, he said, “I figured I could never get high again.” He didn’t count on being drug-tested that morning. He walked out before the results came back.

“There’s a shame in addiction. That’s one thing we have to remove. Part of recovery is telling people that the only difference between you and them is time.”

He presides in a city where the number of opioid overdose deaths, already high in 2015, more than doubled in 2016, to about 300.

But aside from force of personality, he has few tools at his disposal. If defendants continue to use, they are returned to criminal court to face their charges. If they agree to treatment but no beds are available, they have to wait. No one can be required to take medications that would help quell their addictions. But if participants complete the program — which generally means going 60 days without drugs — they have a good chance of having their charges reduced or dropped altogether.

Since the project started last May, only one of its 92 participants has died from an overdose. It is too early to tell if the others will stay clean.

Judge Hannah acknowledges that the powerful opioids available now are far more ruthless than the drugs of his youth. “This substance is a monster. It releases all your pleasure receptors all at one time. If the birth of your baby is an 8, and the best sex of your life is a 9.5, the first shot of heroin is a 4,000.”

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Photo

The observation area in Judge Hannah’s courtroom. Credit Philip Montgomery for The New York Times

Nicholas Schuh, 25, says he believed opioid court would be a waste of time. The alternative, though, was a painful detox behind bars. He had not been clean since age 15, when he started by stealing his mother’s prescription painkillers. Though he had pledged to avoid shooting up, he eventually cajoled his brother, a heroin user, into injecting him. “I told myself, if I ever shot up, my life would be over.”

He wasn’t wrong.

He says he lost 10 jobs in a year. He crashed his car. He stole so much that one of his younger brothers finally installed a deadbolt on his own bedroom door. Nicholas overdosed twice; once, he left the hospital to score again.

He was not a fan of Judge Hannah, who thought Nicholas’s best hope was to check into a locked inpatient treatment facility, where rules are stricter than in many jails. “I wanted to say, ‘Did you go through inpatient?’ He’s never done that,” Nicholas said. “I felt I was being pushed into a corner.”

But something finally clicked. He now receives an injection of Vivitrol, a drug that blocks opioid highs, every 30 days and has become a Christian. “He has truly saved my life,” he says of Judge Hannah. “We have a relationship. So it isn’t like going to see a judge you’re scared of.” He pauses, surprised by his own words. “I look forward to seeing that man every day.”

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