James Rodriguez and his girlfriend were sitting in his old Saturn on the side of Cerrillos Road one August afternoon waiting for a Santa Fe police officer to approach the vehicle. As the traffic cop walked up to the window, Rodriguez turned to his girlfriend.

“I’m just sick of running,” he told her. “I’ve had enough. I’m sick of looking over my shoulder.”

A few months earlier, Rodriguez had been in a 2 1/2-hour long standoff with the Santa Fe County Sheriff’s Office, during which he refused to come out of his Camino San Patricio rental. The SWAT team surrounded the house and police blocked off all the streets around Ragle Park, believing Rodriguez was armed, holding hostages and guarding a meth lab. In reality, he was just inside getting high, running through the house and rolling on the floor to stay clear of the windows, as though he was in an action movie.

“It was stupid,” he says now.

Originally from San Jose, Calif., Rodriguez started using meth by age 12 and was a dad by the time he was 14. At 16, he moved to New Mexico to try to distance himself from his drug connections. By the time of the February 2005 standoff, his rap sheet included charges for controlled substance possession and auto theft, plus juvenile weapons and drug charges. After he finally came out of the house and surrendered to law enforcement that day, he was booked at Santa Fe County Adult Detention Facility and released on electronic monitoring. Then he cut off his ankle bracelet and absconded.

Rodriguez and his girlfriend drove through Arizona, California and Washington state, staying in run-down trailers without electricity or water. More importantly, Rodriguez’ supply of meth ran out. If it hadn’t, he says, he probably wouldn’t have told the cop at the traffic stop that he had warrants for his arrest, and he probably wouldn’t be sitting across from SFR in a south side Starbucks, talking about recovery.

Rodriguez is one of 258 graduates of the 1st Judicial District Court’s Drug Court program, which serves Santa Fe, Rio Arriba and Los Alamos counties. It’s an alternative sentencing program that attempts to rehabilitate criminal offenders whose crimes are related to their drug or alcohol addictions, instead of sending them to prison. Graduates of the program are more than four times less likely to reoffend compared to the general population of convicted criminals in New Mexico.

“I’m starting to realize what it’s like to just live life and just enjoy everything,” 2005 Drug Court graduate James Rodriguez says.Credits: Wren Abbott
“I’m starting to realize what it’s like to just live life and just enjoy everything,” 2005 Drug Court graduate James Rodriguez says.Credits: Wren Abbott

“Common sense tells us that, if you address people’s core problems—whether they be problems with controlled substances or alcohol or both—if you address those problems and get them into a treatment modality, you can keep them from penetrating deeper into the [criminal justice] system, which would have a good effect on keeping them out of jail and keeping them out of prison,” New Mexico Sentencing Commission Director Tony Ortiz says.

Rodriguez has now been clean for five years. He went from grocery store clerk to store manager, and reconnected with his three children from previous relationships. Approximately six weeks ago, his wife had a new baby boy.

“I absolutely don’t think I’d be where I am now without that program,” Rodriguez says.

Despite the notorious drug problem in Santa Fe County, which contributes to much of the violence and property crime that plagues the area, Drug Court hasn’t been deemed a core function of 1st District Court that can be covered by the court’s base budget. With the paucity of funding available to sustain it in the current economic climate, Drug Court’s future is now seriously threatened. Last year, an allocation of $1 million from the state liquor excise tax saved all but two of the state’s drug courts from total extinction, though many of those remaining had to scale back their services.

This year, not even a renewal of those funds is assured. As SFR profiled five Drug Court graduates for this story, a picture emerged of a program that has an impressive past history of achieving lasting results when other interventions have failed, but one that faces an unknown future.

{::PAGEBREAK::}

By the time Carlos Gonzales started Drug Court in 2001, he had already relapsed after each of nine different residential rehab programs all around the country. It was a last-minute decision by 1st District Court Judge Michael Vigil to admit him to the program.

“He was headed to the penitentiary and I was ready to send him,” Vigil says. “But there was something about him the day that he appeared for my sentencing that seemed sincere. And just the way he talked about realizing where he was in his life and how this was pivotal—if he went to prison that would be it.”

“I thought I was someone who was destined to die in prison—and that’s not who I am today,” Carlos Gonzales says.Credits: Wren Abbott
“I thought I was someone who was destined to die in prison—and that’s not who I am today,” Carlos Gonzales says.Credits: Wren Abbott

Gonzales was as surprised as anyone when he sailed through the program without a relapse. He says he thought he was destined to die in prison. Instead, he’s now the procurement manager at the New Mexico Department of Game and Fish. He sponsors current Drug Court participants, he’s spoken in front of the state Legislature on behalf of the program, and he’s on the board of the National Association of Drug Court Professionals. As of Jan. 30, he will have been clean for 10 years.

Gonzales, along with experts in the field, says Drug Court has significant advantages over residential addiction treatment programs. Drug Court requires participants to take responsibility for staying clean and doesn’t isolate them from real life. Gonzales says he viewed the inpatient rehab programs that he went through prior to Drug Court primarily as a way to escape the turmoil in his life and appease his family.

“What Drug Court did was they made you become accountable for what you were doing,” Gonzales says. “You had to have a job. You had to go to meetings. You had to report for [urinalysis or UA]. You had to pay child support if you owed it. Treatment doesn’t do that. It’s not real life.”

According to treatment providers, UAs are critical.

“We know that they’re clean and sober sitting there, so they’re really absorbing what we’re working with,” Brian Parkhill, a licensed social worker who counsels drug court participants and other recovering addicts, says. “If you have a guy who is not doing drug testing, he can tell me lots of really good things but, the truth is, if he’s going out that night and using, he’s not getting anything out of it.”

To deal with the challenge of temptation, Vigil suggested Gonzales carry a picture of his four daughters with him everywhere to remind him why it’s important to him to stay sober. After two months of sobriety, Gonzales faced his first big temptation when someone offered him drugs.

“And I pulled out those pictures and I made a choice…It’s as simple as you make the choice,” he says. “A lot of people think, ‘Oh, I was brought up that way; I had a bad childhood,’ and I’m not discounting that, but I’m saying, if you really want to quit, you have to make a choice. You can make a good choice or a bad choice, but you can’t blame anybody ’cause nobody puts the beer down your throat; nobody puts the drugs in your system. You do. And that’s what Drug Court made me realize.”

When Gonzales worked at Albertsons, Vigil would come talk to him while he was shopping.

“He would see me stocking the shelves or whatever, and he’d come and talk to me and he’d always walk up and shake my hand,” Gonzales says. “He never demeaned me. He always talked to me on the same level. He would tell me, ‘Do you have your picture?’ And I’d pull out my wallet and I’d show it to him…It was for real, he was for real.”

{::PAGEBREAK::}

On a typical Tuesday at noon, Vigil is presiding over his courtroom, but he holds an orange plastic clapper shaped like a cartoon hand on a long handle, instead of a gavel. He uses it to dole out generous amounts of applause in a court hearing that bears little resemblance to anything else on his docket. Like most judges involved in drug courts, Vigil volunteers for this, holding the hearings on his lunch hour. But as casual as Vigil seems, chiding a participant for wearing a Broncos jersey instead of supporting Vigil’s favorite team, the Lobos, he’s very aware of the power he holds at these hearings.

“One of the important components of this is the way [participants] develop this relationship with the judge, and that they look at the judge as somebody who is on their side,” Vigil says. “And then somewhere along the process, those participants who are working the program the way they should be really do not want to disappoint the judge. I’ve had people who get sanctioned for testing positive and they’re not so concerned about the jail sentence as much as they’re concerned about having to appear in front of me the next week and tell me about their relapse.”

During the hearing, participants stand at a podium while Vigil asks them about their week and comments on the reports he’s received from Drug Court staff. He tells them they’re on a roll or, if they missed a meeting or didn’t get a Narcotics Anonymous sponsor, he asks them for an explanation. But typically, at some point, a deputy enters the courtroom, escorting one or two SFCADF inmates who shuffle to the jury box in their shackles and county oranges. They are Drug Court participants who committed a crime mid-program. On one day, a gaunt-looking man picked up on an aggravated DUI charge reads a prepared entreaty to the judge in a quavering voice, awkwardly holding the piece of paper in his manacled hands. If his charges prove legitimate, he’ll be terminated from the program.

Proponents of Drug Court point out that, while the complex role played by the Drug Court judge is essential to the program’s success, not all judges are well-suited to it.

Dr. William Miller, professor emeritus of psychology and psychiatry at the University of New Mexico, says the personality of the doctor, counselor or judge guiding a rehabilitation program can actually be more important than the structure of the program itself.

“The less effective therapists are the authoritarian ‘I know what’s right; listen to me’ kind of person, and the more effective therapists are those who are empathetic, who listen to their clients and develop a good relationship with them,” Miller says. “It’s effective to have someone you find credible talking to you—that’s true if it’s a doctor; that’s true if it’s a judge—but also to have someone who cares about you and who’s relating to you as a human being and is interested in your perspective on things.”

First Judicial District Court Chief Public Defender Hugh Dangler notes that Drug Court requires a judge become involved proactively with defendants’ problems, rather than just reacting to them. He says Vigil is ideally suited to the program.

“Judges like Michael Vigil are like saints,” Dangler says. “They want to work with poor people; they want to be in the community—that’s really not typical.”

However, some critics believe drug courts’ attempt to turn judges and prosecutors into treatment allies can deprive defendants of traditional protection for their due process rights, as Western New England College School of Law professor Eric Miller writes in a 2004 Ohio State Law Journal article. University of California, Davis sociology professor James Nolan Jr. argues in a 2003 article for The Canadian Journal of Sociology that defendants can end up entangled in the judicial system longer as drug court participants than if they had served their jail or prison sentences.

Although Gonzales, who went through Drug Court without relapses, finished in less than nine months, typically participants in 1st District Court’s Drug Court program take 12 to 16 months to graduate.

Everyone SFR interviewed for this story finished the process in less time than they faced in prison. Sheila Lewis, interim director of the drug law reform advocacy group Drug Policy Alliance, says that, in this respect, all drug courts are not created equal. In the interest of inflating a program’s success rate, some drug courts target first-time offenders—who might have succeeded just as well on regular probation—rather than focusing on hard-core drug addicts, she says.

“I would like to see a drug court in every judicial district that really is focusing on the problem and not simply putting people through an extra step in the criminal justice system that they don’t really need,” she says.

If, as Lewis suggests, comparatively low success rates are an indication that a program is screening participants appropriately, 1st District Court appears to be focusing on the right population. Its Drug Court graduation rate is the third lowest in the state, which New Mexico Statewide Drug Court Coordinator Peter Bochert says is due to the population it serves.

“Due to limited funds, [1st District Court] is committing its resources to only the most hard-core of the people who are referred to the program,” Bochert explains. “They look at it as a court of last resort…[participants] are at that last stage, the last chance they’ve got before a significant stint in the penitentiary.”

{::PAGEBREAK::}

“Drug courts work,” Statewide Drug Court Coordinator Peter Bochert says.Credits: Wren Abbott
“Drug courts work,” Statewide Drug Court Coordinator Peter Bochert says.Credits: Wren Abbott

Drug court began in 1989 as a Dade County, Fla., experiment. The 2nd Judicial District Court in Albuquerque started a drug court in 1995 and the 1st Judicial District Court in Santa Fe began its program two years later. Today, there are 38 adult, juvenile, family dependency and DWI drug courts statewide.

Santa Fe County Sheriff Robert Garcia, Vigil and 1st Judicial District Chief Deputy District Attorney Doug Couleur point out that the county’s persistent problem with both violent crime and property crime is a direct result of the intractable drug and alcohol problems with which this population struggles.

“People’s problems with drugs, whether it’s addiction or abuse, whatever you want to call it, are related to much of the crime,” Couleur says. “Alcohol is involved in a tremendous amount of the crime [in Santa Fe County], especially violent crimes. Alcohol and violent crime, and alcohol and domestic violence go hand in hand.”

The drug overdose rate in Santa Fe County between 2006 and 2008 was higher than 16 New Mexico counties. Since 1st District Court also serves Rio Arriba, the county with the highest drug overdose rate, the population the Drug Court serves is considered the most challenging in the state.

Considering that 26 percent of New Mexico’s inmate population is serving time on drug-related charges, prison is a realistic outcome for people who fail in Drug Court.

To Michelle (who asked that her last name not be used), prison was not an idle threat; she had a five-year suspended sentence hanging over her head, and was well-acquainted with the feeling of being locked up after repeated stints in Santa Fe County Adult Detention Facility.

Michelle was sitting in Santa Fe County Adult Detention Facility in early January 2008, after being remanded to jail for the fifth time since starting Drug Court five months earlier. She strongly resisted Drug Court those first five months, trying to game the system by using drugs and alcohol within a certain window she thought wouldn’t affect the UA tests. It never worked. Since she kept being sent to jail, she missed custody hearings for her daughters. One day in jail, she imagined looking at her daughters and explaining why she couldn’t see them.

“I imagined having to tell my kids, ‘You want to know why mommy can’t see you? Because mommy chooses not to see you, because she chooses to use drugs,’” she says. “And I broke down and I thought, how can you tell your kids that? How could you live with yourself having to tell your kids something like that?”

In April 2003, Michelle’s sister died in a motorcycle accident, at a time when Michelle and her sister hadn’t been getting along. Grieving, Michelle cut back on work hours and, as her paychecks got smaller, bills piled up and there was no money left over for partying. She embezzled more than $6,000 from her employer by appropriating a customer’s deposit, went from snorting cocaine to smoking crack, lost custody of her daughters after a DUI, lost her house and moved in with her parents.

Counseling with Parkhill helped Michelle realize how guilty she felt because she couldn’t resolve things with her sister.

“You can’t live with guilt or you won’t stay sober and clean for very long,” Parkhill says.

He recommended Michelle write a letter to her sister, telling her how she felt.

“I read it to her and then I burned it. And you know, nightmares stopped almost immediately. There was just a weight off my shoulders.”

Michelle had been clean for a two-year period before Drug Court, while she was on probation for the embezzlement charge. As of Jan. 8, she has been clean two years again this time. She says it’s different because, before, she was a “dry drunk,” who had quit using but hadn’t changed her mindset in the ways Drug Court encourages participants to do.

“I’ve dealt with things on a deeper level, and plus I know the first time I got clean I didn’t think when I was using it was all that bad,” she says. “I had lost my house, but I kept saying I lost my house because the girls’ dad left and I didn’t have money to pay the bills. I never admitted it was ’cause I was using my money for drugs. The first time I got clean I still thought I wasn’t that bad; things weren’t that bad. Well, when I relapsed things got that bad. So now I know I don’t want to go back there.”

{::PAGEBREAK::}

Drug Court graduate Anthony Marquez calls his last arrest on trafficking charges, which led to his participation in Drug Court, “a blessing in disguise.” Credits: Wren Abbott
Drug Court graduate Anthony Marquez calls his last arrest on trafficking charges, which led to his participation in Drug Court, “a blessing in disguise.” Credits: Wren Abbott

Drug court programs measure their success primarily in terms of recidivism, which is calculated as the percentage of graduates who are arrested (not necessarily convicted) within three years of graduation. 1st District Court has an 11 percent recidivism rate; nationally, the type of offenders served by drug courts have a recidivism rate of 40 to 60 percent. According to the New Mexico Sentencing Commission, the overall recidivism rate for people who have previously served time is 47 percent, so Drug Court graduates are significantly less likely to reoffend than the state’s criminal population in general.

In 2009, former Gov. Bill Richardson’s Task Force on Prison Reform analyzed a decline in the state’s prison population and made suggestions to try to perpetuate that trend. The report suggests that the proliferation of drug courts throughout New Mexico was a likely reason for the prison population’s decrease.

Before Drug Court, Anthony Marquez had been arrested five previous times for drug possession and drug trafficking.

The life he lead had enough perks that, until he was forced to by Drug Court, he could never bring himself to walk away.

Sometimes, when Marquez is out and about around town, he runs into people he knew back in the day.

“They’ll be like, ‘You had it all, man. You had all the money; you had all the girls; you were always happy; you always wanted to party. What happened to you?’”

Marquez fantasizes about those days too sometimes. He was a mid-level cocaine dealer who sold several ounces of cocaine a day—approximately $2,000 worth—to three dealers working under him.

“I look back at it, man. Yeah, I was never worried about any money; I was never worried about having to go and buy something or even think twice about buying a car or buying anything.”

Marquez is a big guy and, as laid-back as he seems now, it’s not hard to picture him in his previous incarnation as an intimidating cocaine dealer. Back then, he says, he would kick down people’s doors and steal their TVs if they owed him as little as $40. As time went on and more and more of Marquez’ product went up his nose, he became more reckless.

“I was feared of other people’s lives from me, ’cause I was just a walking time bomb,” he says. “I was not in my right state of mind. I didn’t care who I hurt, when I hurt him, how I hurt him.”

After Marquez repeatedly bonded out after being busted and went back to selling, an acquaintance set him up to get busted by the Region III Drug Enforcement Task Force, the inter-agency group that targets large-scale dealers. He faced nine years in prison, but got a second chance in Drug Court.

Now clean for four years, he’s hardly living la vida loca. Business is slow at the family construction and excavation company he works for, and it pains him to part with even the money it costs to buy a pack of cigarettes. But that doesn’t mean he’s tempted to go back.

“I notice now that you cherish your money that you make honestly,” he says. “You want to make it last; you don’t want to spend it on anything and everything.”

He also cherishes his wife and his daughters, age 14 and 15. Like the money he came by dishonestly, the friendships Marquez had before didn’t turn out to be so valuable.

“Nobody was there for me when I was locked up,” he says. “Nobody went to go see me. When I was out here pushing the drugs I was always everybody’s best friend. But when I got caught, not no person went to see me but my family…So when I got out it was, ‘Hey, what’s up? Are you back again?’ And I’m like, ‘No, why should I be there for you when you were never there for me?’”

{::PAGEBREAK::}

“It’s really competitive because every state is going through what we are here,” 1st District Court Drug Court Director Lupe Sanchez says of getting federal grants to support the program. Credits: Wren Abbott
“It’s really competitive because every state is going through what we are here,” 1st District Court Drug Court Director Lupe Sanchez says of getting federal grants to support the program. Credits: Wren Abbott

Although his family history puts him at a greater risk of re-offending than the other graduates SFR interviewed for this story, Antonio (who asked that his last name not be used) would be out of luck if he tried to get accepted to Drug Court today. That’s because, under the conditions of the federal funding on which the program currently relies, only non-violent offenders are eligible. Antonio’s most recent offense was aggravated battery with a deadly weapon.

Antonio was born addicted to heroin and adopted by his aunt as a baby when his mom left to serve a 10-year sentence for drug trafficking. Two of Antonio’s siblings and two of his cousins died young as a consequence of drug use, and he has been around drug use as long as he can remember.

“The people I looked up to were the people that had nice things, the drug dealers,” Antonio says. “They really took me under their wing.”

By age 10 he was drinking and smoking pot; at 12 he tried cocaine. He started using heroin at age 19 and has struggled to get out from under its sway ever since.

“All the old crew, all the people I grew up with, because of this disease are either dead or in prison,” he says.

Vigil says a family history of multi-generational drug use creates an especially intractable addiction. When an individual in this situation graduates from Drug Court, the program’s staff will often encourage him or her to move out of the state for a few years if at all possible and build a stronger foundation for their sobriety. But because of strong family ties and financial limitations, that can often be tough for graduates.

Until a couple of years ago, Drug Court had the resources to help vulnerable graduates address some of their other limitations that can predispose individuals to drug use, such as poor educational background and a lack of career preparedness. Then, as now, participants who don’t have a high school diploma have to get a GED to complete Drug Court, but there used to be funding to help grads get an associate’s degree at one of the local community colleges, and vocational counseling.

But when 1st District Court’s Drug Court program offered those supplemental services, it was receiving approximately $290,000 to $400,000 annually—in federal grants for the first few years, then in-state appropriations. Last year, $1 million from the state liquor excise tax funds was appropriated to the Administrative Office of the Courts to distribute among 25 drug court programs statewide—an average of $40,000 per program. Both the Lea County drug courts couldn’t survive that budget shortfall, although the meth epidemic in that area continues to create a strong demand for it.

Back in 2006, the New Mexico Drug Court Advisory Committee created an ambitious five-year plan to put at least one drug court in each of New Mexico’s 33 counties. New Mexico got up to 25 before the whole five-year plan was scrapped in 2009 due to the state budget crisis. After the loss of the Lea County courts, there are drug courts in 24 counties but, at this point, their futures are not assured.

The Legislative Finance Committee recommended Jan. 7 that the liquor excise tax fund money again benefit drug courts this year, but Gov. Susana Martinez didn’t mention any appropriations for drug courts in her proposed budget. Her spokesman Scott Darnell didn’t return numerous calls.

Because of state budget limitations nationwide, competition for federal grants to support drug court has become extremely tough, Bochert says. First District Court is the only drug court program statewide that secured a grant for the next fiscal year, and that’s only for $98,000 to cover the next two years. In addition to paring down its services, 1st Judicial District Court’s program also reduced its number of participants in Santa Fe from 35 to 20. Right now, Drug Court has a three-month waiting list.

“If the funding does not get better, then I think you’re going to see drug courts go away,” Vigil says. “It’s not going to produce the results that we’re producing right now because it’s going to be so watered down that it’s not going to be any better than probation.”

The program that’s potentially on the chopping block actually saves the state money compared to incarceration. While 1st District Court’s program costs approximately $18 per participant per day; jail costs approximately $65 and prison $113, according to the New Mexico Sentencing Commission.

“It’s sort of ironic when we’re in a very tough budget situation. If you have a program that’s mature, gets good results you can measure, is relatively inexpensive—if you lose that program, it’s a tough thing,” Sentencing Commission Director Ortiz says. “You’ll start to see an increase in people going further into the system…jail or prison is going to be much more expensive than a drug court program.”

In addition to likely costing the state more money in the long term, a shift from drug court back to incarceration would create dependency in people who could potentially lead productive lives if they had been rehabilitated, Vigil says.

“Sending people to prison serves a purpose, and there are cases where it’s appropriate, as long as we all realize that the person who’s going to come out of prison is probably not going to be a different person from the person who went in, and may also be worse,” Vigil says. “There’s nothing in prison that is designed to keep them out of the system. In fact, they become dependant on the system. They become—I guess the word people use is ‘institutionalized,’ where they function best in a prison setting. That to me is a failure, when we’ve done that with a human being.”

Antonio’s future, like that of Drug Court itself, is uncertain. Right now he’s teetering on what he calls the thin line between relapse and recovery. He’s relapsed twice since graduation.

Judge Vigil has known Antonio his whole life because, before Vigil was a judge, he represented Antonio’s mom on her trafficking charges. Later, he became Antonio’s sentencing judge.

“He’s a remarkable young man,” Vigil said. “He had a rough start in life and he had a rough life for the longest time, with his mother locked up, being raised by an aunt. There was a lot of drug addiction in the family—his uncles and aunts all did time in prison for drugs. So he grew up in a family culture of drugs and I think that he didn’t want that lifestyle for himself, but found himself sucked into it and found himself drug addicted and found himself headed right in that same direction…he just really is yearning not to have to be that way.”

Antonio is attending school full time at Northern New Mexico Community College, studying automotive technology and customized painting. He’s also acted and done stunt work in two wide-release films and two cable TV shows. Even though he’s covered in tattoos, with his bulked-up arms and cool charm he seems nothing like the man in his mug shots. Yet despite all his promise, Antonio seems tired of fighting his addiction, and scared.

“I probably have 1,000 relapses left in me, but I don’t know if I have another recovery,” he says.

SFR