On the wall of Judge Randall Skanchy's otherwise austere courtroom, there's a bulletin board full of wedding announcements and photos of smiling babies. Nestled among Christmas cards decorated with puppies and Santa hats, there's a GED certificate and an acceptance letter to ITT Technical Institute. In thoughtful memoriam, someone's tacked a fortune cookie message up beneath a dog-eared obituary: "You will achieve perfection."

It's the drug court version of grandma's refrigerator. On this board, Skanchy chronicles the ups and downs of the lives of those who battle their drug addictions under his watch. Through the course of treatment, which lasts an average of 18 months, he gets familiar with their personalities, their problems and their triumphs. And, though he has a reputation among offenders as being "tough," those who sit in his courtroom come to respect him, too.

"He knows these people inside and out," said Patty Fox, manager of Salt Lake City's drug court program. "You can ask him any day, he'll tell you exactly what's going on with any one of them."

A judge's disposition — whether respectful and caring or mean and disinterested — may make the difference between a trip back to prison and an addiction-free life for a drug offender. On a national level, about 70 percent of drug convicts end up back in front of a judge within three years of release from prison. Participation in a drug court program lowers that number by an average of 18 percent. According to a study released by the Urban Institute this month analyzing the factors contributing to rehabilitation, the judge has a bigger influence on success than even the offender's own life circumstances.

That revelation may have broader implications for America's historically hard-nosed criminal justice system. Over the past decade, an increasing number of states have instituted programs copying the drug court model, which puts an emphasis on a more give-and-take model of interaction between judges and defendants. In addition to drug courts, there are now mental health courts, prostitution courts and tobacco courts — to name a few.

An unlikely friendship

Some turn to drugs as a means to sooth emotional pain. Scott Morrison was just looking for a good time. Raised in a religious home where even an after-dinner glass of wine was met with disdain, the 28-year-old wandered into the world of substance abuse as a curious teenager, hobnobbing with the wrong crowd. He took his first drink of alcohol in eighth grade and popped his first pill sophomore year. By 17, he was in juvenile drug court. It took him two years to graduate from the one-year program because, he said, "I was messing around. I was doing everything I couldn't get tested for. I was doing mushrooms, acid. I was drinking."

The drugs were fun — until his life started falling apart. Kicked out of his home for doing drugs, marriage falling apart, facing three felonies, he found himself contemplating suicide. One day the urge to end his life was so strong, he drove himself to the emergency room. "I'm addicted to drugs and I want to kill myself," he told the attending physician.

The first time Morrison met Judge Skanchy, he thought Skanchy was "close minded." The stern middle-aged judge looked intimidating in his formal, flowing black robes. Morrison was nervous, shaking before him.

"He seemed to think he had me all figured out," he said. "And I didn't like it at all."

Morrison, though, had only two options: graduate from drug court or go to prison for up to 15 years. Drug court offers qualifying criminal defendants a way to avoid jail time, receive treatment and reduce the severity of criminal charges — if they abide by an array of stringent conditions imposed by the court. Participants must abide by a curfew, agree to random drug tests, attend treatment classes and sign a "search and seizure" waiver, which grants police unrestricted access to their homes. Offenders meet with a judge on a regular basis, starting out at once a week.

In drug court, Skanchy greets each offender by first name.

"Hi," he says, peering over his reading glasses, voice low, but unthreatening. "What's your report today?"

A line up of people step up to talk with him, one by one. Some are in street clothes. Some are in orange prison jump suits.

"Things are going good," says one offender. "I've been working 40 hours a week."

Another admits to showing up to court intoxicated the previous week.

"I was thinking I was going to get away from something in my sick little, twisted, alcoholic brain," she says, adding that she's since found a sponsor and has started attending daily alcoholic anonymous meetings. "I feel really good about this," she says.

Skanchy listens, eyebrows furrowed. When offenders have good news, he smiles and offers a verbal pat on the back. When it's clear they are struggling, he sighs and shakes his head, looking very much like the exasperated father of a misbehaving toddler. He appears genuinely pained to dole out punishments, ranging from a writing assignment to a short stint in jail.

In a study of 101 drug courts across the country, NPC Research discovered courts where the judge spends an average of three minutes or more speaking with each offender were more than twice as successful at keeping participants from reoffending. The reduction in recidivism increased as one-on-one time with the judge increased.

"A lot of times, by the time someone winds up in drug court, they've been through the system a couple times, in and out of the treatment programs," said Patty Fox, program manager of Salt Lake City's drug court. "As a population, they haven't succeeded in life. Most of their families have walked away. They've lost jobs. A lot of them don't have people to support them emotionally. For a judge to care about their progress is life changing."

It took a few months and a failed drug test for Morrison to realize Skanchy was on his side.

To start off treatment, Morrison used suboxone, a narcotic medication prescribed for opioid dependence, to help wean himself off the drugs. He had, as court rules required, gotten documentation from his physician. When he tested positive for the drug one week during drug court, though, his social worker couldn't find the paper work and he ended up defending himself in front of Skanchy.

At first, the judge drilled into Morrison.

"You need to be tapering off this drug," he said, sharply. "This is the longest taper I've ever seen."

Morrison left the courtroom red-faced and frustrated. But the next week, when Morrison stepped up before the bench, Skanchy apologized. He was too harsh, he admitted. He should have taken into consideration the difficulties Morrison was facing. He was going through a divorce. He was fighting for the right to see his son. He was under a lot of stress.

"I'm sorry," the judge said. "I was wrong."

Morrison was surprised.

"Maybe this is a good guy," he thought. "Maybe he really cares about me."

Slowly, Morrison began to trust. He introduced Skanchy to his father. He talked to him about the cravings. He shared his struggles with work and family.

"I wasn't afraid to go to court anymore," he said. "I enjoyed going. I couldn't wait to go and say, 'Hi." I wanted to tell him how I had been doing."

When things got difficult and he was tempted to return to the drugs, he thought of Skanchy. He didn't want to disappoint him.

"I needed him to be strict with me," he said. "But I knew he believed in me and my ability to succeed."

A different kind of judge

In a traditional criminal justice setting, the judge's sole responsibility is to rule on the case and hand down a sentence, said John Roman, a senior fellow at the Urban Institute. The only interaction a judge might have with a defendant is — if he is sufficiently outraged — to give a strong lecture at sentencing.

In a traditional criminal justice setting, Skanchy doesn't use first names. Most of the time, he doesn't even address offenders directly. Instead, he points questions to lawyers. His face, alive with emotion during drug court proceedings, is a blank, unreadable slate.

"It's about processing people," Roman said. "It's a very negative interaction."

Studies show offenders who are given a strong talking-to by a judge during a sentencing hearing are less likely to be rehabilitated than those who are not.

"If you tell somebody they are garbage, it's hard for them to believe they'll come back and do better," Roman said.

While Skanchy does a fair amount of rebuking, the drug court model relies heavily on positive reinforcement. Each time he meets with an offender, he asks them how long they've been clean. Whether the number is two days or 217, his response is always the same: an enthusiastic round of applause. Participants who are abiding by court rules and passing their drug tests get entered in a drawing to win gift cards and other small prizes.

"In drug court I consider myself to be their advocate," Skanchy said. "I am their friend as well as their overseer. That's very different from the traditional role of a judge."

According to Roman's research with the Urban Institute, this "kinder, gentler judge" is the most important element in a successful drug court.

"The threat of sanctions, the treatment itself, facts about who you are — none of that stuff holds a candle to the importance of the relationship with the judge," he said.

The success of the drug court model has inspired interest in the criminal justice industry in a more personable courtroom experience, Roman said. Many states, like Maryland and Texas, are now experimenting with specialized prostitution courts, which, instead of putting women through a criminal trial, send those accused of prostitution through a social service program. As is the case with drug court, the judges are much more hands-on and focus on building personal relationships with offenders.

"The research shows more therapeutic judges get people motivated and help them stay motivated," Roman said. "Successful rehabilitation is about praise. It's about accountability. It's about treating people respectfully and standing by them through success and failure."

The relationship between drug court judge and offender is a complex mix of listening and guidance, "much like the relationship a child has with a parent," he said.

"I care about these people," Skanchy said. "I want to see them succeed."

The judge gets a pit in his stomach when he sees one of his drug court graduates back in criminal court, facing charges for a new offense.

"Those are the worst days for me," he said. "It always takes the spirit and heart out of me for a day or two."

Morrison gives Skanchy a great deal of credit for helping him turn his life around. Since he completed his treatment in April, he has returned to Skanchy's office often just to chat. When he lost his job, Skanchy was one of the first to know. When he found a new one, Morrison made an appointment to visit the judge to share the good news.

"He's more than a judge to me," he said. "I love him."

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