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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

“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
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