Most of his working day, Judge James Murphy confronts the mistakes and failures of his neighbors: People convicted of violent crimes. Couples beating up each other. Children abused or assaulted.
But for two hours each week, the Spokane County Superior Court judge sees good things happen. He presides over Drug Court, where people who were caught with drugs get a lecture or a pat on the back, depending on their progress.
The one-year-old pilot program has diverted about 60 drug users away from prosecution and into therapy and recovery. Murphy and others say it should be expanded.
The program’s success, Murphy said, is breaking the cycle that drug users often find themselves caught in.
“I’ve seen this for years. People come into court, plead guilty, then spend some jail time. When they get out, they celebrate, get high, and they’re right back in front of me.”
Launched several years ago in cities like Miami and Oakland, drug courts are becoming a common alternative to fines or jail time for drug users.
With the incentive of keeping an offender’s record clear of drug charges, the court pushes people with substance abuse problems into a year-long program of frequent drug tests and counseling.
More often than not, Spokane County Drug Court participants have shown they can stay clean and improve their lives, Murphy said.
As Drug Court judge, his job is making sure participants not only avoid drugs and alcohol, but also keep jobs, meet with counselors or parole officers and come back regularly to show him they’re making progress.
The first year has been a shakedown period with its share of mistakes and failures, Murphy said.
Of the 80 people who agreed to take part so far, about 20 left for various reasons. Some dropped out and were prosecuted. Others left the county and now face a warrant for their arrest if they return.
Some users may think they can slide through the program, but Murphy doesn’t tolerate slackers or manipulators.
“One guy last week still had not tested clean even once in his first three weeks of drug tests. It was clear he didn’t have the right attitude. So I told him he was gone,” said Murphy, who plans to sentence him for possession of methamphetamine next week.
“I tell people up-front that Drug Court will be harder than going through prosecution,” Murphy said. “The first month of the program, their lives are mine.”
When the first two graduates completed their year in the program recently, Murphy was on hand to celebrate, cutting cake and pouring coffee.
One of them said Drug Court stopped him from wasting thousands of dollars a year on pot, cocaine and booze.
Larry, a 43-year-old heavy equipment operator who asked that his last name not be published, just spent the money he saved this year on a new Harley Davidson motorcycle.
Larry said Murphy kept him motivated during the first few weeks of Drug Court.
“When you go through Drug Court, they want you to find a higher power to keep you going,” said Larry.
“For me, Judge Murphy was my higher power. He always treated me with respect. He was someone to look up to.”
Larry said one reason he was successful during Drug Court was the desire to keep his record clean. He was a passenger in a car driven by a friend who was stopped by police last year. Police found marijuana and a small amount of cocaine in Larry’s pocket.
He had no trouble staying clean and passing all his urinalysis tests - some of them ordered randomly. He wasn’t a heavy cocaine user, but needed to break his 20-year habit of smoking pot.
The Drug Court program also put Larry into contact with other recovering users at support groups.
“I got a lot of help from going to AA and NA (Narcotics Anonymous) groups,” Larry said. “You meet people in the same boat and going through the same thing.”
Spokane’s Drug Court came into being after a broad coalition of law enforcement, court and social agency leaders agreed they needed to reduce the growing load of drug cases.
Last year, county prosecutors filed nearly 2,800 felony cases. About a fourth involved possession, manufacture or intent to deliver illegal drugs.
Spokane County Prosecutor Jim Sweetser and others believe many of the other cases are drug-related as well, such as thefts, burglaries and assaults committed by users looking to support their habit.
The key step was winning a federal grant from the Justice Department, which provided the first year’s budget of about $390,000. A state grant plus about $35,000 from Spokane County sales tax revenue earmarked for corrections will help keep Drug Court running until early 1998.
But its advocates aren’t sure where the money to maintain the program will come after that.
Murphy and other supporters also would like to expand the program to more than 100 participants a year.
It now excludes people with prior drug convictions, those charged or convicted of sex offenses or violent crimes, and anyone charged with selling drugs.
Murphy wants to convince Sweetser to broaden the program to include people who are not Spokane County residents, plus first-time offenders arrested for selling a small amount of drugs.
He contends that dozens of people now charged with selling or delivering drugs are only “trying to pay for their own habit.”
Sweetser, who sees Drug Court as a worthwhile alternative in some cases, doesn’t think it should be open to anyone selling drugs. He said he can’t see a simple guideline that prosecutors could use to separate small-time sellers from serious dealers.
Even tough-on-crime County Commissioner Phil Harris likes what he’s seen, giving Spokane Drug Court an “8 on a scale of 1 to 10.”
When or if the judges ask commissioners to pay for most of its budget, Harris said he’s not sure the money will be there.
“The county’s plate of needs is already full. When that time comes, we’ll have to decide if we can do it.”