Spurred by compassion, the Honorable Michael J. Aloi is leading a support system that helps non-violent offenders overcome addiction to become law-abiding members of their communities.
Aloi, a 1983 WVU Law graduate, is the United States Magistrate Judge for the Northern District of West Virginia in Clarksburg, where he presides over the Drug Court. He established the state’s first adult Drug Court in Marion County as a judge for the West Virginia 16th Judicial Circuit.
“I became a Circuit Court Judge in August 2011, and it was not long after that I determined what we were doing in the criminal justice system was not working for all people and that there must be a better way,” Aloi said. “The vast majority of criminal cases are driven by the underlying problems of addiction and mental health issues, and if we do not address those, we will have little if any success in resolving the problem of criminal activity. This is not good for a community or the individual.”
Drug Court is rooted in the belief that, if not for their addictions, drug offenders would not be in the criminal justice system. A post-plea, pre-adjudication program, the program consists of four phases that last a year or longer.
Drug Court participants are required to appear at bi-weekly hearings, hold down a job and set personal goals. They are also required to attend regular meetings with treatment providers, self-help groups, probation officers and other officials who can help them succeed.
Participants who complete the Drug Court program become eligible to receive a lesser sentence, reduced charges, or a dismissal of their indictment.
The Drug Court is a cooperative effort by the U.S. District Court, the U.S. Probation Office, the U.S. Attorney's Office, and various community stakeholders and service providers. West Virginia’s first federal Drug Court began in 2015 in the U.S. District Court for Northern District of West Virginia in Wheeling.
“We are here on earth for one reason, and that is to take care of each other,” Aloi said. “To have the opportunity to work with the most compassionate, most talented people who come together to help others that many in the community look down upon and are often cruel to, it is a privilege.”
Judge Aloi, a drug court participant, and James Ishida of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit
There are currently 14 people participating in Aloi’s Drug Court — a full house, as the program is limited to 15 participants at any given time. In 2020, seven participants graduated from the program.
COVID-19 has forced the Drug Court to move online. As participants enter Aloi’s digital courtroom, he greets them with enthusiasm. He makes a point to recognize each new haircut, to praise each small accomplishment and to fuss over each child or pet that wanders in front of a camera. He reminds the participants to wear their masks and to stay safe at work, and he tells them how great they are doing in the face of adversity.
“I have the utmost respect for Judge Aloi,” said a recent Drug Court participant. “He is the kindest, most genuine judge I have ever met. He truly cares for people and wants to see them succeed. If I could choose anyone in this world to be more like, it would be him. He has always been so very welcoming and loving towards me. He shows compassion and love to all his participants and is hands-on in everything we do.”
WVU Law grads Beth Gross '10, assistant federal public defender, and Andy Cogar '03, assistant United States attorney, with a drug court participant and her family.
One goal of the program is to help address participants’ underlying socio-economic needs and challenges like a lack of transportation, stable housing, proper identification and employment as they work to maintain a drug- and crime-free lifestyle.
“Drug courts are a place of hope and second chances. So often, the underlying issues, which appear as criminal, are driven by socio-economic issues, poverty, addiction, mental health issues, a history of sexual abuse as children or adults,” said Aloi. “Drug courts provide a place where the most vulnerable can have those issues addressed, and that is how I believe the court system should be measured. It is part of my personal mission to make the court accessible to all, which is really justice for all. That not only means giving them literal access to the court, but a court that is responsive in both a practical and compassionate way.”
To manage the variety of needs among participants, Aloi and other Drug Court judges rely on a team effort from a Probation Officer who serves as the Drug Court Coordinator and a network of attorneys, law enforcement, social services providers, treatment providers, recovery coaches and other organizations in the community.
One community partner is WVU Law’s Child and Family Advocacy Law Clinic.
“We are dedicated to serving the public by providing counsel and support to vulnerable individuals who are fighting the horrendous disease of addiction,” said Suzanne Weise, director of the clinic. “While students learn important lawyering and counseling skills in this process, they also learn to listen with empathy and compassion as they assist their clients who are seeking to regain their health while rebuilding their lives.”
The clinic began partnering with Aloi’s Drug Court last year to help participants reunite with their children and families. Under faculty supervision, student attorneys in the clinic provide legal services to court participants faced with visitation and custody issues and other family-related legal matters. They also provide personal encouragement and support for the participants as they overcome their legal problems.
A recent client from the Drug Court praised the clinic’s work.
“I am grateful and thankful for not only my time with Judge Aloi, but also with my student attorneys and Suzanne Weise,” she said. “Suzanne is passionate about her job as well as her students. She has gone above and beyond to help me — and that means a lot. She and the students have worked super hard to help me and it shows. They always show compassion, understanding, and they seem to care. They are by far the best lawyers I have ever met.”
About Judge Aloi
Michael J. Aloi is from Farmington, West Virginia. Prior to becoming a judge, he worked in private practice for 28 years in Fairmont. He has mediated over 2,500 cases and is the only lawyer in the state selected to be a Fellow of the American College of Civil Trial Mediators.
Aloi was appointed to the Sixteenth Judicial Circuit in 2011 by Governor Earl Ray Tomblin and became the Magistrate Judge for the Northern District of West Virginia in 2015. He serves on the board of the West Virginia State Bar’s Judicial and Lawyer Assistance Program and he is a member of the bar’s Task Force on Lawyer Well-Being. In addition to teaching as an adjunct faculty member at WVU Law, he is an Instructing Judge for Basic Criminal Advocacy at the National Advocacy Center in Columbia, South Carolina, and a faculty member at the Federal Judicial Center in Washington, DC.
Aloi earned his bachelor’s degree from West Virginia Wesleyan in 1980. In 2018, he was awarded the Justitia Officium, the highest award presented by the WVU Law faculty in recognition for his outstanding contributions and service to the legal profession.
His daughter, Iris, is a 2017 graduate of WVU Law.