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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

“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.”

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