At first glance, the stuffy basement room in the Maricopa County courthouse seems unremarkable: a black-robed figure looming over the dais; lawyers and sheriff's deputies at the ready; a line of 72 convicted felons up for sentencing. First comes the lanky forklift driver caught with crystal meth. Then the surly mechanic, father of three, busted for cocaine. And the pale 19-year-old with shorn red hair, on probation for using marijuana, who has failed his latest drug test. He shuffles his feet as his mother looks on, wipes away a tear and mumbles, "I messed up."
Yet however familiar the scene, the criminals in Judge Colleen McNally's courtroom have little to fear. They are first offenders, convicted of possessing drugs for personal use--not of dealing--and, as such, benefit from a groundbreaking Arizona statute barring their imprisonment. McNally's sentences are about rehabilitation, even repentance. Part shrink, part scold, McNally rules with revivalist fervor. "You're going to get a lot out of this journey," she tells a woman sentenced to counseling and urine testing. The audience is invited to clap--and they do so, loudly--as she praises a man who has stayed clean for six weeks and hands him free tickets to the local science museum. The young redhead gets community service: washing windows in his church.
Arizona's Proposition 200, which passed four years ago, was a radical departure for a conservative Republican state. Before the vote, former Presidents Ford, Carter and Bush released a letter attacking it. Drug czar Barry McCaffrey flew to Phoenix and warned that it amounted to "the legalization of all drugs." But the politicians may have been out of touch with popular sentiment. Recalls political consultant Sam Vagenas, who steered the Arizona initiative: "When we asked focus groups if we were winning the war on drugs, people just laughed."
Today the law excites little debate in Arizona as it funnels 6,000 new drug felons a year into treatment rather than jail. To be sure, Maricopa County district attorney Richard Romley complains about offenders who are "refusing treatment and thumbing their nose at the court." But a 1999 report by the Arizona supreme court--now being updated--found that 77% of offenders stayed off drugs during the year following their arrest and that the state had saved $2.5 million in prison costs. Probation officer Jim Frost, a 30-year veteran, didn't think treatment would work "without jail hanging over someone's head." Now he says, "Boy, was I wrong. Drug users are not apathetic people with glazed eyes. They care about succeeding--pretty much like everyone else."
On that day in her courtroom, McNally sent the sometime meth user back to his forklift and the mechanic and recovering cocaine addict back to his three kids. The pot-smoking teenager trailed behind his mother. Says the judge: "When somebody's threatening to throw you in jail, it doesn't feel like they care about you. Now there's a different attitude." And it is showing results.
--By M. R./Phoenix, Ariz.