ITHACA, N.Y. — On Tuesday, I sat about four-feet away from a man I barely recognized and don’t know, hoping that he would not go to jail.

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I’d seen him before — in his mugshot, his face was gaunt and covered in scabs. Alan Richards robbed a 74-year-old woman in a shop she owns in the Commons back in March.

Related: Man pleads guilty to robbing 74-year-old woman at Ithaca smoke shop

It’s not that I don’t sympathize with the victim – I do!

I agree wholeheartedly with what Assistant District Attorney Diane Lama said during sentencing: That Richards’ crime was  “aggressive, greedy and repulsive.” 

But consider this:

The first time I saw Richards in person was when he appeared in court to accept a plea deal on June 3. His face wasn’t covered in scabs anymore, but I wouldn’t describe him as looking like a healthy man. And he kind of half-halfheartedly took responsibility for his crime.

It was enough though for the plea to stand — if he completed treatment for his newly acquired addiction to opioids, it would be considered during his delayed sentencing.

That sounds like a great deal, right?

Wellllll…in some way, yes. On its face, the chance to complete rehab for reduced or no jail time is an opportunity. But in other ways, not so much.

Because addiction is life-long challenge to overcome. And it’s hard to do.

According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, up to 60 percent of those in recovery from addiction relapse.

Provided by the National Institute on Drug Abuse

This means that most people in recovery are going to slip at some point. If that happens while a person is being monitored by the courts, then is could very well result in a jail or prison sentence.

The second time I saw Richards in person, things were not going well for him. I didn’t write a story about it, but from what I can remember, he was called to court to get a firm warning from Judge Joseph Cassidy: Shape up or risk going to prison.

He’d violated minor infractions at a living facility he was at. It involved completing chores. He was also not engaging with his recovery group.

It seemed to me — though I’m no expert — that Richards was on a bad track.

Recently, there was a flub or two getting Richards from Binghamton to Ithaca for his sentencing. I didn’t know what caused him to not appear in court, but I know not showing up when you’re supposed to doesn’t usually bode well.

Tuesday, the day of his sentencing, it looked like he wouldn’t show up again. Court had already started and nobody seemed to know where he was.

It seemed like the proceedings would go on without him. But then, a sweaty man walked into the courtroom panting. His bus had been late coming from Binghamton.

If you hadn’t told me that full-faced man was Alan Richards, I certainly wouldn’t have guessed. Everything was different about him, even the way he talked, and he had a lot to say.

Richards, who does not have a criminal history prior to 2014, was sorry for what he’d done. He’d lost his wife and family as a result of his addiction. And he was doing better — he’s 10 months and three weeks into recovery.

As Cassidy spoke afterward about how robbery cannot be tolerated in our community and how it would be “remarkable” for Richards only to be sentenced to the amount of time he’d already served in jail — about 55 days — I didn’t know which way the tide would turn.

Then Cassidy said the sentence: Time served plus felony drug treatment court.

An excited teenybopper inside of me cheered like I was watching a boy band.

Richards still has a hard road ahead of him. Felony drug treatment court is not easy and involves meticulous compliance for drug tests and appearances.

But he appears to genuinely be seizing his second chance.

When the court works in favor of addicts like this, it’s truly beautiful.

I don’t mean that as a slight to the court or legal system. There are other instances where the court works in favor of addicts, but this one particularly stood out to me as a prime example of what Tompkins County is doing right to combat drug addiction and crime.

Kudos to the judge, lawyers and programs that allowed this man a second chance at life.

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Jolene Almendarez

Jolene Almendarez is Managing Editor at The Ithaca Voice. She can be reached at jalmendarez@ithacavoice.com; you can learn more about her at the links in the top right of this box.