Rather than fill prisons and jails with people who are addicted to drugs, judge John Miraldi has turned the Lorain County Justice Center into a refuge where the future is honored above the past.
Within a year of being a public official, Miraldi found his desire to serve was squashed by his duties as a judge.
“What I found myself doing was warehousing human beings,” he said in a talk on addiction recovery early this year, part of a series hosted by Church of the Open Door.
The judge said a fair share of criminals who are dangerous and need to be imprisoned have come through his court room. But lately, he’s seeing people between 18 to 30 years old who have never been in trouble before committing a felony in the fifth degree — possession of heroin.
At weekly status hearings, the common pleas court judge presides over the county’s drug court, though Miraldi doesn’t use that phrase. He calls it “recovery court” and during hearings sets aside his judicial robes and gavel to make people more comfortable.
The idea is simple, yet profound: Drug courts are an alternative to incarceration. They use the leverage of the courts to connect people with long-term treatment and supportive programming instead of jail, where they risk falling back into addiction immediately upon release.
These defendants tend to be the lowest risk subjects of the criminal justice system but have the highest need, Miraldi said.
“This is a brain disease, proven by science, proven by MRI,” he said. “Why would someone who knows fentanyl can kill them crave fentanyl? Is that a logical brain at work or is that a brain diseased?”
Here’s how it works: A drug addict tagged with at least one felony will go before the judge and plead guilty. Completion of the voluntary recovery court program will result in no conviction, but more importantly, sobriety and a second chance at life.
Once they’re in, they begin an intense treatment course.
Phase one requires 90 days of supervised sobriety. This amounts to weekly status hearings before the judge and probation officer, three random drug tests each week, and weekly meetings with a probation officer.
Scheduled sessions with a mental health therapist are also required because there’s almost always a disorder dovetailing addiction. “People are not using opiates because they’re happy,” Miraldi said.
Behavioral modification is a centerpiece in recovery court. Participants are praised for their good behavior and encouraged for taking steps forward.
“If they’ve met all of their obligations, we acknowledge them,” Miraldi said. “I announce their sober days. They get a round of applause. They get a good job. It’s amazing. They have shattered every relationship — family and otherwise — in their lives. They have lied their way to homelessness and it has been a long time since somebody has said, ‘Great job.’ I know it seems small, but it’s not to them. You should see them react.”
On the flip side, if they fail a drug test or break a rule, punishment comes immediately. Sanctions can be as small as writing a letter explaining their decision or spending time behind bars.
Phase two demands an additional 120 days of sobriety on top of phase one’s 90 days. Courtroom appearances drop to every other week.
In phase three, participants will cross the crucial nine-month threshold, a point where the physiological makeup of the brain begins to repair itself, Miraldi said. Here, participants are learning life skills, engaging outside sober support, and taking GED classes.
Successful participants will leave the 13-month program with more than a year of sobriety to celebrate.
“We have a huge graduation ceremony with cakes,” Miraldi said. “It’s a big deal. Some people have never had a graduation ceremony. They started using in high school and they never graduated.”
The pull to do opiates is unlike any drug the judge has ever encountered. He said supervised medication has its place along the path to sobriety and recommends participants get on Vivitrol, a monthly shot that blocks certain opioid receptors in the brain and eliminates the pleasurable feelings associated with taking opioids.
“We cannot begin to restore these people if all they’re thinking about is using heroin,” Miraldi said. “So don’t discourage medication. It’s a first step.”
What’s the only downside of recovery court? An addict has to have a felony, Miraldi said.
“The billions of dollars we are spending on the criminal justice system for this drug could be so much better used for community treatment centers and sober living, but in our country, for some reason, we think prison is the answer,” he said, his voice intense.
Miraldi recalled a 24-year-old lady who went before him weeping on Dec. 20. She had missed Christmas for the past two years and begged the judge to let her go.
“I promise I will go straight home, I will be with my children for Christmas, and I’ll be back in jail on the 25th.”
Trusting and naive at the time, Miraldi said yes.
She never went home, but overdosed on heroin that same day.
“That was an experience where I was impacted by the depth of this addiction,” he said, with a solemn voice and his eyes downcast.
Laurie Hamame can be reached at 440-775-1611 or @HamameNews on Twitter.