LOS ANGELES—A visitor walking through the doors of Judge Michael Tynan's courtroom might mistake it for a church of repentant sinners seeking salvation from a man in a black robe.

Members of this congregation come with criminal records and confessions of hard times when drugs, alcohol and mental illness sent their lives spiraling. Some arrive in their best clothes ready for redemption; others are escorted in handcuffs and jail uniforms that show they have not yet found the light.

In this court, Tynan is a purveyor of hope—not punishment—sentencing law breakers in Los Angeles Superior Court to sober living and recovery programs rather than prison. He is sometimes tough, often supportive but always in command of what is essentially a rescue mission.

"They do the work. All we do is give them the opportunity," he said. "I'm just here as a cheerleader and motivator."

Tynan, still going strong at 76, has presided over several alternative sentencing programs for nearly two decades to help military veterans, drug addicts, the mentally ill and women convicts tackle problems that led to crime. While similar courts exist elsewhere, Tynan may be the only judge running so many programs single handedly for some of the most troubled people in the criminal justice system.

Thousands have come before him for nonviolent felonies—mostly drug crimes. He decides if they are eligible for a program and fields daily progress reports, offering a verbal pat on the back, encouragement to try again or a stern rebuke.

On a recent day, gray haired Lionel Morales, 60, wearing jail blues, said he relapsed and used heroin. Tynan asked when he first shot up.

"I was fourteen," Morales said.

Tynan shook his head, but gave him another chance.

"You're lucky to be alive," he said. "Mr. Morales, for God's sake, clean up!"

Tynan was a public defender known as "Father Mike" for trying to guide troubled souls into Alcoholics Anonymous and other programs when he signed on to start an innovative drug treatment program with a $600,000 federal grant.

That was 18 years ago.

The youthful and vigorous Tynan could have retired long ago, but he wouldn't abandon this post for anything. Sure, there are losses and failures. Some people fail and quit. Others fall down, get up and come back for another chance. The most successful are between 35 and 50.

"They are just sick and tired of being sick and tired," Tynan said.

At a time when Los Angeles is closing courtrooms and laying off employees, Tynan's mission has struggled for funding, but managed to survive.

He has a powerful ally in new District Attorney Jackie Lacey, who wants to expand the programs that cut down on the number of reoffenders and save the costs of expensive trials and state imprisonment that runs $65,000 a year. The rate of those who get arrested after completing the programs is between 10 percent and 30 percent, compared to 75 percent for those who go to prison.

"It's a money-saving and lifesaving thing," Lacey said, acknowledging it's an unusual role for prosecutors. "We're usually standing there telling a judge to send them to jail. The idea of prosecutors saying, 'Let's make sure they are successful on probation, pay restitution and get free of drugs and alcohol,' is very different."

Martina Tucker, 31, was a methamphetamine addict when Tynan sent her five years ago to Prototypes, a Pomona residential rehab program. She regained custody of her five children, including triplets, and is close to completing two degrees at Mount San Antonio College.

"He opened the door for me and I walked through," Tucker said of the judge. "He has a big heart and he wants us to succeed. When we do, he's proud of us. We don't get that anywhere else."

Success is not guaranteed.

On a recent day, Tynan chastised a dropout with mental illness to stay on her psychotropic medications. A handcuffed man arrested for drug possession was given another chance after Public Defender Mark Dewit, who is one of two defense lawyers and two prosecutors who staff the court, vouched for him. Tynan said he was sorry when another inmate chose jail over a return to treatment.

He understands the failures.

"These folks can get overwhelmed by a hangnail and they self-medicate," he said. "The programs are difficult and the people are so badly damaged. Many are seriously mentally ill. They have to examine their lives and see where they began to use drugs. It's not easy."

Drug courts started nationally 30 years ago to treat nonviolent felons instead of sending them to prison. They have blossomed nationwide and include many other diversionary programs such as veterans and homeless courts, though judges typically handle just one type along with a traditional case load.

"I've never heard of one judge doing what Judge Tynan is doing," said Larry Cunningham, associate dean of St. John's School of Law in New York. "These cases are very time intensive and require a judge to delve into a person's life, to see how they're doing. It's not like a five-minute arraignment."

Tynan, who once made headlines presiding over the serial killer trial of "night stalker" Richard Ramirez, now basks in the successes that are marked when participants complete an 18-month residential rehab program and graduate.

"I have trouble holding it together at these," Tynan, with a crack in his voice, told a group of seven women graduates who had been arrest- and drug-free after being released from prison. "I know what you've been through, the anger you felt, the work you have done. This is truly a glorious morning."

Each woman got up to tell their story. They had endured withdrawal, months of intense therapy and found a place to live.

One graduate, Valerie Amador, said she woke up angry that morning because she couldn't buy Christmas gifts for her kids.

"But this bad day doesn't compare to the worst of the bad days of smoking crack downtown." she said. "I didn't want to live that way anymore and today I am free. I am really truly free."

Before she left court, a Protoypes director said her children would have Christmas. And Judge Tynan gave her a hug.