Superior Court Judge James Murphy smiled down at the drug user seated before him.
It wasn’t the first time the man, hooked on methamphetamine, had been arrested for drugs or other crimes fueled by his habit.
His appearance in court Friday, however, was like no other. Even his defense attorney, Michael Kenny, was intrigued.
“Everyone here is committed to your success,” Murphy said warmly to the defendant. “You should know that. We wish you luck.”
Thirty-year-old Richard Thompson looked hopeful. He was the first defendant to step foot into Drug Court, Spokane County’s experimental drug-diversion program that began last week.
The program gives people caught with drugs a choice to complete a year of treatment or go to jail. This year, Murphy estimates about 60 people facing drug charges will receive a combination of outpatient treatment and intensive monitoring through Drug Court.
“I’m hoping treatment for that amount of time could help me stay on the straight and narrow,” Thompson told the judge Friday.
“What I’m doing now is, I fall down and get back up and then I’m OK for awhile and then I fall down again. I’m sick of it.”
In addition to helping addicts break their habits, supporters say the program will slow the endless cycle of addiction and crime that is clogging court dockets and jail cells.
“I am very excited about this and very optimistic,” Murphy said. “I’m confident we’ll see changes.”
Only people caught with small amounts of felony drugs are eligible for Drug Court. Excluded are drug dealers and anyone with a record of violence.
Those who opt into the court admit their guilt and waive their right to a trial. If they successfully complete the program, charges are dropped. If they fail, they go directly to jail.
Murphy hopes at least half of the offenders going through the program will stay clean and crime-free. They will be subject to random drug tests and will come before the judge twice a month, which he hopes will build a unique parent-like relationship.
He wrapped up the first Drug Court hearing by taking off his black robe and shaking hands with Thompson, who was about to start treatment.
Murphy reminded him to come back to court in two weeks. Relapses are tolerated in the initial treatment phase, as long as the participant is showing progress.
“We anticipate some setbacks,” Murphy said. “But the most fatal thing is blowing off your next court date.”
Thompson assured the judge he’d be there.
“I’ve never seen anything like this,” said Kenny, the defense attorney. “For once, it’s like we’re all on the same team. It’s encouraging.”
A $189,000 federal grant will fund the Drug Court pilot program for about a year. About 30 cities in the United States have drug courts.