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Breaking Bad

Drug Court has helped hundreds escape from lives of drugs and crime—but does the program itself have a future?

January 26, 2011, 2:00 am

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.”
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