The number of young people participating in drug courts across New Mexico has steadily declined 32 percent over the last two fiscal years, according to a legislative report released last week.

The report, which examined the number of adult and juvenile participants in the state's drug courts over the last two fiscal years, gives an update on the effectiveness and reach of the programs that are alternatives to incarceration. It concludes that while the state saved money by sending 821 adults who qualify to the programs instead of imprisoning them—at a rate of $9,400 per adult participant in drug court compared to $11,500 for standard—it lost money on 281 juvenile participant in drug courts, at a rate of $0.83 per $1 spent.

While the character of drug courts varies, they typically employ a mix of therapeutic and punitive responses to encourage sobriety for people arrested or convicted of drug crimes or for crimes committed while under the influence, among others.  The state spent a total of $11.7 million on drug court programs between fiscal years 2015 and 2017 for 2,917 participants.

The report says that the decline among juvenile participants is due to the closure of four juvenile drug courts in the last two years in Taos, Raton, Gallup and Ruidoso. The programs, arms of the 8th, 11th, and 12th District Courts, were shut down due to low enrollment and referral volume, the report says. But it also says the Administrative Office of the Courts, which oversees 12 juvenile drug programs in the state, should "assess outcomes and costs of juvenile drug courts to ensure they are viable and effective."

Kim Moore, the program manager for the Santa Fe County drug court, says that the program follows a "granulated sanction and an incentive system" for those who qualify, which includes those in both pre- and post-adjudicated phase of criminal cases. The system is a carrot-and-stick approach that dishes out treatment and other interventions for substance abuse as well as consequences. Santa Fe County works with two treatment providers, Indian Health Services recovery program and the private company Human Resource Development Associates, to provide urinalysis, counseling and other programming to participants.

"We don't always use jail as a sanction, but it gradually gets more severe if [drug] use continues," she tells SFR, adding that the program pairs the punishment with treatment intervention including more counseling and group meetings.

While drug courts have been presented as an alternative to incarceration, other groups like the Drug Policy Alliance argue that they are less effective than their proponents claim them to be. They also describe drug courts as a paradox because they rely on the disease model of drug abuse, which says people have little personal control over their addiction, and a punishing model that posits people are in full control of their decisions. And because some adults who participate in drug courts have to accept drug convictions to qualify, advocates say they can induce lasting harm.

"Drug courts in some cases work for people, but they're not always the answer," says Emily Kaltenbach, the executive director of Drug Policy Alliance New Mexico. "We should not in any way be dealing with drug use in the criminal justice system." Kaltenbach believes that the most effective drug courts would place the fate of participants in the hands of health professionals, and not corrections officials.

Melynn Schuyler, executive director of the nonprofit organization ¡YouthWorks!, works with some young people who participate in drug courts in Northern New Mexico. While she says those involved in the court system work to rehabilitate young people, she recognizes that the model is ultimately still "punitive."

"The whole idea of court is about 'You did something wrong in society, now you better do something and pay it back,'" Schuyler says. "Young people don't respond to discipline and punishment. One of the tacts that ¡YouthWorks! takes is to try to reinforce good behavior instead of bad."

New Mexico's Administrative Office of the Courts oversee the state's 21 adult drug courts and 12 juvenile drug courts, except for the 2nd Judicial District adult drug court, which is overseen by the Corrections Department.