The judicial district covering Curry and Roosevelt counties is one of only three in the state with no type of drug court for nonviolent offenders.
Ninth Judicial District Judge Teddy Hartley would like to change that.
Drug court is a program that imposes strict probation conditions and mandatory treatment and work programs on nonviolent drug and alcohol offenders.
It also offers the opportunity to avoid jail time.
“I personally believe this is a very, very, very important project and I think when you see the results, you’ll see why it’s important to the community,” Hartley told an audience of nearly 100 community leaders and law enforcement officials gathered Friday at the Curry County Courthouse.
Hartley introduced 2nd Judicial District Judge Richard Knowles from Albuquerque, who headed the first drug court in New Mexico when it began in 1995. Knowles said the state now has 24 drug courts and two more starting up, covering 10 of the state’s 13 judicial districts.
“I came into drug courts as a skeptic,” Knowles said. “I came on the bench as somewhat of a libertarian. I thought, drugs, why are they such a big deal? If they aren’t bothering anyone, let them alone.”
Knowles said that attitude toward drug use continued until he began seeing patterns in the lives of defendants who came into his court.
“I felt impotent to change lives,” Knowles said. “People were testing positive when they came to see their probation officer. How stupid is that? If your drug of choice is cocaine or heroin, all you have to do is stop using a few days before your monthly meeting and you’ll test clean.”
Knowles said a key problem with traditional enforcement of drug laws is the lack of swift and certain consequences for illegal behavior.
“We have been lying to people for years in the criminal justice system, and we have been saying if you use drugs, we are going to arrest you and you are going to go to jail,” Knowles said. “What was happening in Bernalillo County? They would get arrested for drugs, they would go to court the next day, the (prosecutor) would drop the case. Six months later, the charges would be resurrected, they’d be put on probation, they’d violate probation, and then maybe they’d go to jail.”
As a result, Knowles said most drug users thought they were getting away with their drug use and those who were sentenced to jail after repeated drug-related probation violations were shocked when they finally did spend any time in jail.
Knowles said the difference between drug court and traditional judicial process is much closer supervision of the defendants in four phases. The programs run at least 40 weeks with increasingly stringent work, school, or community service requirements. Random drug screening is required every two to three days.
For those who don’t follow the rules, consequences are swift.
“For the first positive drug test (they will spend) one to three days in jail immediately,” Knowles said.
For subsequent violations, penalties increase.
Knowles said a work requirement system is also essential to the program’s success. By week 13 of the program, participants must be working, attending school, or doing community service for 15 hours weekly, and that requirement increases to 30 hours at week 25. By letting the participants decide whether to go to school, work for free, or work at a job they might not normally want, most participants opt for the choice that pays them the most money rather than performing community service. Those who cannot find a paying job learn work skills through unpaid community service.
“It’s no longer a choice of whether you’re going to work, it’s where and how much you want to make,” Knowles said.
Knowles said the best part of the program is the recidivism rate, which he determines based on lack of any further felony drug convictions after completing the program. National recidivism rates for comparable nonviolent drug offenders who don’t go through drug court are about 40 percent, Knowles said.
Knowles said he’s seen adult recidivism rates in Albuquerque’s 2nd Judicial District under 5 percent.
Hartley said that low rate of repeat criminal behavior is a major reason he wants to bring a drug court to Clovis.
“I have a keen interest in this program, and 20 years of working with addicted people,” Hartley said. “The rates of non-recidivism here are so fantastic as to be almost miraculous. In a standard (Alcoholics Anonymous) or (Narcotics Anonymous) treatment program you won’t get anywhere near 50 percent rates, but here (in the proposed drug court) we are getting 85 percent rates. That is enormous.”