Tell me, what else should I have done? Doesn't everything die at last, and too soon? Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?

-- from "The Summer Day," by Mary Oliver

Everyone knows what's about to happen to Milton Allen. It's a Wednesday morning in June, and Allen, the middle-aged, cocaine-addicted son of a once-prominent Baltimore prosecutor and judge, has just taken a familiar seat at the defendant's table in the city's Drug Treatment Court. He's broken one promise too many, and this time he'll pay.

His attorney, assistant public defender Cindy Mossman, chats quietly with him. His disappointed probation agent, Paul McGowan, slumps in a wooden chair a few feet away. Laura Brokaw, an assistant state's attorney, appears more somber than usual and picks through a stack of yellow files on the prosecutor's table. As the judge assigned to this unique court, Gale Rasin, reads the progress report on Allen, there's no trace of the cheerful countenance she presents to many of the drug addicts who come before her, in various stages of recovery, each week.

On this day, Rasin won't be handing Allen a red, plastic "step pen," a token reward she gives defendants who stay clean for 90 days. She won't be declaring Allen "on the A-team," and asking everyone in the courtroom to applaud him for another good report card.

Milton Allen, 46, is a Drug Court failure, and the frustration is palpable among all parties assembled in Courtroom No. 2 in the District Court building on Wabash Avenue in northwest Baltimore. Allen was a good candidate for Drug Court -- a man with a problem who needed help, not punishment -- but he didn't hold up his end of the deal. So he's about to face the consequences, and no one in the courtroom takes particular satisfaction in this. In fact, there's a kind of sadness and mild angst about the whole thing, the feeling of relatives struggling with a draining problem around a kitchen table.

Drug Court is an unusual -- and unheralded -- place in the realm of criminal justice. There's a family-therapy aspect to the court's proceedings; they are more personal, more intimate than those of traditional courts. The stories are less about crime and justice than about human struggle and redemption. Some leave you despairing for the future of Baltimore. Some give you hope. All cases, especially the losers like Milton Allen's, affirm the depth and formidability of the city's drug problem.

Established in 1994 at both the Circuit Court (for felony cases) and District Court (for misdemeanors), Drug Court is designed to attack Baltimore's horrendous addiction crisis, estimated to have ensnared 40,000 to 60,000 city residents, and thousands more in the metropolitan area. The idea is to offer treatment instead of incarceration for thousands of nonviolent offenders: the steady customers of the heroin and cocaine markets who keep getting arrested, clogging the courts, filling the jails and making Baltimore notorious for its severe rate of drug addiction.

Now in its seventh year, Drug Court might be having more impact on the future of the city than many other government initiatives with higher public profiles. Court officials, as well as researchers from the University of Maryland, College Park, believe Drug Court is making slow but lasting progress, cutting the re-arrest rate among its drug-addicted defendants by as much as 50 percent and getting them the treatment many have never had. More than 700 men and women have "graduated" from Drug Court since 1995 and only 11 percent of them have been convicted of new crimes, according to the Maryland Division of Parole and Probation.

Still, there's such a long way to go in a city the federal Drug Enforcement Administration last summer called the "most heroin-plagued" in the nation.

Spend a few weeks observing the misdemeanor Drug Court on Wabash Avenue, and a profoundly sad and stark picture quickly forms -- a tableaux of long-addicted Baltimore men and women who are poor, undereducated and afflicted with a disease that is in most cases never treated.

"How many children do you have?" Rasin asks Geniece Brennan, a 37-year-old defendant about to enter the Drug Court system.

"Four," Brennan says.

"What are their ages?"

"Twenty, 16, 13 and 11."

"How far did you go in school?"

"Tenth."

Her drugs of choice? Heroin and cocaine.

Duration of use: "Seventeen years, off and on."