“We always have to forgive each other,” he says.
“It’s hard standing in judgment. You have to be fair and just and merciful, and you have to walk humbly with God at your side.
“I am a custodian of the law. I have to follow the laws in front of me because men much wiser than me came up with them.
“Sometimes my job tells me that I’m not the person who can redeem … that the law says a certain offence means you have to go away for a while,” he says.
But where he can, he will offer a different path.
“Users are self-medicating. Most of our clients have co-occurring disorders. Once you take off the mask of drug use, they have to deal with the real-life issues, which are the reason why they were using in the first place.”
As a young man, he paid the price for his own personal dark side. He grew up in a crime-ridden Buffalo neighbourhood, where drug use was normal.
A cocaine-user at the age of 14, he went on a drug binge the night before entering officer training school for the Marines.
He was drug-tested on arrival and, busted, lost his training place. He describes ruining this chance as a lightbulb moment.
“It hurt, but I describe it as the best day and the worst day of my life. I always think you are put in a place where you need to be,” he says.
That disappointment made him work harder and aim for law school.
The drug diversion programme at his Buffalo court, in upstate New York, has drawn wide attention. It’s the first treatment court of its kind in the US, as the search continues for ways to counter an opioid epidemic sweeping the country.
Hannah’s court is oriented more towards social work rather than legal work. He sees his job as a public servant and judge as helping people become a “better version” of themselves.
His hometown of Buffalo, the second biggest city in New York State, “really took a hit when the steel plants closed”.
Many plant and factory workers suffered injuries leading to chronic pain, for which they were then over-prescribed painkilling medication.
“The majority of the individuals that I see were living very productive lives. They got an injury and went to seek help for the pain – hard-working individuals from all walks of life, who had families, jobs, maybe even a business supporting other people.”
As doctors gradually realised the addictive nature of this medication and stopped prescribing, users turned to the closest alternative – heroin.
A computerised programme to prevent patients from ‘doctor-shopping’ for pain prescriptions sped up the switch from prescribed opioids to heroin.
“Some of the heroin our individuals were seeking was not actually heroin at all, but Fentanyl and Carfentanil, which are at least 50 times as strong as what they were used to taking. That’s why we had a huge rise in overdoses,” says Hannah.
In 2017, the number of US deaths involving opioids (including prescription opioids and illegal opioids, like heroin and illicitly manufactured fentanyl), was six times higher than in 1999.
On average, 130 Americans die every day from an opioid overdose – or a total of 70,200 in 2017 – according to government figures.
“These painkillers were marketed as being addictive-free, as being safe,” Hannah says. “It’s a tragedy. Doctors relied on that, but it was totally wrong, because they are just as addictive as any other opiate.”
Blame for the crisis has spread to the drug manufacturers. Several US lawsuits are pending now against big pharmaceutical firms to hold them accountable for marketing addictive prescription drugs as safe, but none has yet gone to verdict.
Cutting the red tape
Judge Hannah believes there are lessons to be learned from past mistakes, since ostracising addicts clearly hasn’t worked. “We knew we had to handle this in a much more effective way.”
Defendants before the judge are sent for treatment at the time of arraignment, when they are charged in his court, usually with misdemeanours or low-level felonies as a result of trying to feed a drug habit. Addicts get drug treatment within hours of arrest, and behavioural counselling within days.
“The beauty of it is that we cut all the red tape. We have our community partners [offering insurance, housing, education, health and transport services] present in court, so that our clients get the treatment they need, regardless of whether they have insurance.”
A lot of the services were already in place – Judge Hannah’s court became the focal point to bring them all together. He describes it as ‘community mapping’ to pool resources, so clients don’t leave court without the ancillary services in place.
“In our programme, we don’t sanction use, we sanction behaviour, because these are individuals with an addiction, an illness.
"Our job is to change their mind-set and give them the habit of doing what productive people are doing – getting up every day and taking care of business,” he says.
“Most of our clients have burnt every bridge to feed their habit, so they are charged with grand theft, burglaries, home invasion, unauthorised use of vehicles.”
Criminal charges are put on hold while drug users engage with the therapeutic process. Though no promises are made, Hannah says public prosecutors have been supportive of the process, once they see an effort to change destructive behaviour.
Clients are released to treatment facilities, but they have to report to court every day and obey an 8pm curfew.
Judge Hannah’s court uses positive language – clients, not defendants, and hiccups, not relapses. He uses these euphemisms to build up hope and respect.
The goal is to keep people alive. Of the almost 500 users who have passed through the programme since 2017, only three have overdosed.
Medical, not criminal
The biggest initial opposition to the drug diversion programme was from defence lawyers because, at arraignment, clients make a full admission without being advised of their rights by a lawyer.
“It only took months [to get full backing]. We definitely had buy-in from the prosecutors’ office at the start, and once we had buy-in from the defence, everything just sky-rocketed,” says Judge Hannah.
But he muses that the law is ultimately an extremely conservative profession. Many of his colleagues find it difficult to accept that drug crime is a medical rather than criminal problem.
“It doesn’t go over well at cocktail parties,” he says. “But it’s our job to educate each other. It’s our job to look after the least, the lost, and the overlooked. It’s our job to let them know that there is a better way out there. Most of these individuals don’t even want help. But they trust lawyers.”