Hon. Craig Hannah sitting on the judges bench.

Creative thinking from the bench

“Our primary goal is not to punish, it’s to make sure they don’t do this again. If you’re a judge, once you put that robe on, everyone in your jurisdiction is under your care. For non-violent offenders or people who are in the throes of addiction, I think it’s incumbent on us to give those people the tools they need to succeed.”

Every judge knows that there’s a fine balance between dispensing justice and mercy. From his seat on the Buffalo City Court bench, Hon. Craig Hannah ’95 strives for that balance every day – and has taken innovative steps to not just sanction convicted offenders, but to rehabilitate them.

Judge Hannah’s first-in-the-nation Opioid Intervention Court, created in 2017, takes non-violent offenders who are addicted to opioid drugs and helps them to turn things around. Judge Hannah invokes a tough-love approach, checking in with his “clients” in court over a period of months as they go through drug rehab and otherwise stabilize their lives. The result: fewer petty thieves in expensive prison confinement, and more lives and families made whole.

Creating a Path to Rehabilitation

“We treat our opioid clients as family. Most of these individuals have burned every bridge they have,” Judge Hannah says. “Our job is to instill hope and get them back on track – getting in the habit of doing well, getting up early, going to work. We give them the support they need, and if they’re off the beaten path, I have to put my foot on their butt, too.”

“UB School of Law was probably one of the best experiences of my life. The staff made the process as welcoming as possible. They all have an open-door policy – they’re there to help. When I first walked in, I was so naive – you think you’re the smartest person in the room. Then you find out the room is full of smart people, and you learn how to get better, how to be a professional and how to do the work.”

The groundbreaking court is a natural outgrowth of Judge Hannah’s judicial philosophy. “For me, the hardest thing you can do is stand in judgment of people,” he says. “We all fall short. Our clients or defendants have done something illegal, and they’re in front of us. Our primary goal is not to punish, it’s to make sure they don’t do this again. If you’re a judge, once you put that robe on, everyone in your jurisdiction is under your care. For non-violent offenders or people who are in the throes of addiction, I think it’s incumbent on us to give those people the tools they need to succeed.”

He also draws on his own long-ago experience with cocaine addiction to understand why people with drug problems act as they do. “The reason you and I don’t get into trouble is that we have something to lose,” the judge says. “We have jobs, we have families, homes, cars. We police ourselves, because we want to continue to be in the inner circle and be effective in society.

“But once you start committing crimes, you get excommunicated from the inner circle. Our clients are in the outer circle, and they have nothing to lose. Once they start to accomplish things and acquire things, then they police themselves and that revolving door is over.”

His approach to rehabilitating these non-violent offenders has reduced recidivism and changed lives, and the world has noticed. National Public Radio, The New York Times and London’s Guardian newspaper have written about Judge Hannah’s Opioid Intervention Court, and as a result, other jurisdictions have taken note. Now, Hannah is in regular contact with judges nationwide looking to adopt his model.

“We wanted to create a program that can travel well, something that other people could replicate, and they can cherry-pick the parts they can use,” he says. “Some rural communities don’t have the same access to the resources of a university that we do, but if this is helpful to you, use what you can.”

Acquiring the Right Tools

Before being appointed to the City Court bench and subsequently winning election to a full term, Hannah worked in private practice as a litigator, for the City of Buffalo and as a prosecutor. He says his law school experience furnished him with a toolkit of skills that helped him excel in each of those roles.

“Law school helps you do ordinary tasks very well,” he says. “Wherever you are, you’ll have to read, write, and speak in public. They teach you those skills and help you fine-tune them so that when you leave there, you can do almost anything.

“UB School of Law was probably one of the best experiences of my life. The staff made the process as welcoming as possible. They all have an open-door policy – they’re there to help. When I first walked in, I was so naive – you think you’re the smartest person in the room. Then you find out the room is full of smart people, and you learn how to get better, how to be a professional and how to do the work.”