The Profile: Judge James Carroll ’69

Judge James Carroll ’69 pioneered a recovery court program in New Hampshire that changes lives, helping drug offenders get back on their feet and conquer addiction without jail time.

By Katharine Whittemore

She enters from the side door, in a pine green jumpsuit stamped “Belknap County Corrections.” A sturdy woman, tousled dark hair, tattoos on her neck. She’s flanked by lawyers and prison officials. Light glances off her handcuffs. The time is Tuesday afternoon, All Saints Day. The place is Laconia District Court, in central New Hampshire, just uphill from wind-whipped Lake Winnipesaukee. Each Tuesday, since 2012, non-violent drug offenders have come here for what’s called Recovery Court. Judge James Michael Carroll ’69 presides.     
 
“Miss Brown, I want you to be sober, healthy and safe,” the judge says to the woman in handcuffs. “Never mind prison. That’s not part of my deal.” She stands still, looking hard at this tall man, with his big bald pate, trimmed white beard, and glasses. A Crusader purple tie peeks out the top of his judicial robes.

Miss Brown pleads guilty to drug possession, and agrees to the supervision of Recovery Court, rather than go to jail. She’s about to get a decidedly full plate: daily group rehabilitation sessions at a local counseling center, plus individual therapy, community service requirements, help with housing and job search, meetings with a social worker and parole officer—and weekly check-ins right here, in this tidy room of blond wood and the blue state flag.

“Our program will keep you busy in a good way,” Judge Carroll goes on. “You see these people behind you?” He gestures to 10 sitting here today—all recovering addicts reporting for their check-in. There are young men with some of the cockiness knocked out of them, older mothers trying to make good for their children, wizened users sober for the first time in decades. “They are now and forever your family,” says Carroll. “I welcome you to the family. It’s a great one to be in, right folks?” The others chuckle—it’s amazing how upbeat they seem, having bonded through countless meetings, now further into a new life than Miss Brown. They good-naturedly answer, “Yes!”  

An aspirational tableau unfolds. “Beth, come on down!” says the judge. He reads from the weekly checklist. Made all meetings? All but one. Community service? Eight hours plus 30 hours of work. Do any drugs or alcohol? “No. In fact, I hit five months of sobriety yesterday,” says Beth, brightening. The judge smiles broadly. “What do you say, Ms. Abikoff, can you beat that?” he asks Jacqui Abikoff, the executive director of Horizons Counseling Center in nearby Gilford. Abikoff reveals that Beth has even been selected to take a 5-day training to become a recovery coach. “You’re the Bill Belichick of recovery!” jokes Carroll, citing the famed Patriots coach. Everyone laughs.

He tells Jason he’ll write a letter of recommendation for a job at UPS, and gives him a chip for 60 days sobriety. (“Amazing, Jason!”) He notes today’s no-shows. He jokes with Dan about working as a mascot for the Salvation Army’s recent Turkey Plunge fundraiser (Dan wore a turkey suit), and praises him for applying for a ski lift attendant job at Gunstock Mountain Resort. “You had a solid week, but there have been misdeeds and dishonesty before, and you owe amends to people,” the judge says, shifting effortlessly from jocular to no-nonsense. “But keep up the good work. Remember, when you become dishonest that good work goes out the window.”
      
 *****

There are upwards of 3,000 drug courts in the U.S., but just one Recovery Court. “From day one, I am not calling this drug court because I really think it sends the wrong message,” Carroll told New Hampshire Pubic Radio last summer. “To me, it is the equivalent of saying this is losers court. This isn’t losers court.”

The need is dire: In Belknap County, which contains Laconia, three-fourths of the jail population has a substance abuse disorder. Before he was a judge, Carroll was both a prosecutor and defense attorney, and all that time, “I thought there has to be a balance between locking people up and curing what is ill with them.”  

And so, two years before he became a judge, Carroll gathered together a team to create Recovery Court, including Abikoff, public defender Jesse Friedman, city prosecutor Jim Sawyer and the superintendant of the county jail. They had no funding, and thus met for a year during their lunch hours to map out how Recovery Court would work, the logistics, policy, procedures. “Judge Carroll believes in action,” says Friedman. “He brought us all together, got all the heads of the agencies on board. He was very ‘build it and they will come.’”

Carroll says Recovery Court is one of the proudest parts of his legacy (it pains him that, by law, he must retire next year when he turns 70). But he’s always been a galvanizer by nature: “When Judge Carroll was in private practice, we tapped him regularly to do pro bono services for women in domestic violence situations,” recalls Abikoff. “He never said no. I think his faith is the center point of who he is. He believes in forgiveness and it drives the way he sees people as a judge. At Recovery Court, he takes such an interest in each person’s life, and really creates a bond. When he’s disappointed in them, it means more. And when he praises them, it means more too.”

Longtime addicts, especially, have burned through family and friends, and lack a support structure to help toward recovery. “A lot of people out there have no one to believe in them anymore,” explains Carroll. “But if you have people believing in you, it makes a heck of a difference.” He pauses to come up with an analogy to describe what Recovery Court is trying to do: “You’re taking a 20-year-old Chevy with no brakes and leaking transmission, and trying to make it into a Maserati. Recovery Court teaches recovering addicts the intricacies of internal combustion, changes the oil on a regular basis and puts new tires under them to give some stability.”  

Keeping with that metaphor, then, what drives Jim Carroll? Partly, it’s personal: He’s a third-generation Laconia native, and often knows the families of those who end up in Recovery Court. “I’m a hometown guy,” he says, and has relished the Granite State outdoors his whole life, boating on the lake, skiing, puttering in his garden. His father, James M. Carroll Sr. ’40, ran a barbershop in town and then sold securities, while his mother was a nurse.

Faith also drives him. “Holy Cross, and the Catholicism on campus, engendered in me a desire to do something with my life, make a difference, be involved with my community,” says Carroll. He majored in history, and married his high school sweetheart, Janet, his junior year, while also making lifelong friendships with classmates such as Blaise Berthiune, Pat Bourque and Mike Maloney.
 
After graduation, he joined the Army reserves, and toyed with the idea of law school, but wound up working in his father-in-law’s Laconia restaurant, The Windmill, as a cook and manager. He stayed on for 18 years, while his wife directed a local preschool. The judge still loves to cook, and one of his specialties is the restaurant’s Dutch potato soup.

Meanwhile, the Carrolls raised their four children, the youngest two adopted from Korea. The judge had long spoken of going to law school, but it was Janet who really lit the fire. “I’ve got nothing but gratefulness that she pushed me,” says Carroll. In 1987, he graduated from Franklin Pierce Law Center (now UNH) in Concord, New Hampshire. Since then, he has worked at two local law firms, been a city prosecutor, and the Belknap County attorney, and is an adjunct law professor at the University of New Hampshire at Manchester.  

In 2011, he was appointed to the bench, and the gravity of the position is never lost on him. Every morning, he works out at his local gym (often while listening to country music, like Brooks & Dunn), and then lets himself into Laconia’s St. Joseph’s Catholic Church at 5 a.m. (He’s got his own key). Judge Carroll has developed a quiet ritual over the years: Hail Marys, Our Fathers, prayers for his family. “Then I ask for guidance on doing this job,” he says. “In our faith, we believe that only God can judge you, so I try to be very humble, and know there is no special magic in being a judge. I try to be a true human being. The court is for every citizen, and I just have the honor to sit there and treat everyone the same, no matter who you are, or what you look like or where you came from.”

 *****

Back in Tuesday’s court, the judge is indefatigable, checking, praising, admonishing, throwing in humor wherever possible. One young guy unthinkingly calls him dude, and quickly apologizes. “Don’t worry,” says Judge Carroll, “I’ve been called a lot worse than dude.” The room breaks up. Even Miss Brown drops her poker face for a minute. Her shoulders seem to lose some of their tension as these people’s stories continue, their inevitable setbacks outweighed by the parade of accomplishments. Maybe she’ll be one of winners—Recovery Court has around a 60 percent success rate. Friedman puts this in context: “Since Recovery Court, I’ve seen people I thought would never, ever, make it, who have made it.”
 
Judge Carroll hands Sammy a chip for 30 days sobriety. (“Nice job! Way to keep it together.”) He congratulates Jared for the “major accomplishment” of taking suggestions even if he doesn’t agree with them. As he goes over Thomas’s checklist, the judge lets on that he was part of a recent audience for Thomas’s presentation on his own addiction and recovery. “It doesn’t get better than Tom before a group of total strangers revealing his entire soul,” says the judge. “Tom, we love you, you’ll help so many people with this. You are a credit to yourself, your family and this court.”

Then there’s this exchange with Hannah:

Judge: “What was your accomplishment last week?”

Hannah: “Not using. I’m struggling. But I got it.”

Judge: “That’s quite an accomplishment.”

Hannah: “You saved my life.”

Judge: “You saved it.”

Hannah: “No.” She looks at him square. “You did.”  ■

Editor's Note: Names of recovery court participants have been changed to protect privacy.