Cover Stories

Drug Court Vanguard

Judge Jason Lidyard works to keep people with addictions out of the criminal justice system rather than allow them to be swallowed up by it

On a Friday afternoon in August in Española, Valdez Park was quiet but not deserted. A gaunt man in oversized clothes searched vainly in the waste bins and a group of teens sat chatting around a picnic table. The park is known as a place to score drugs, says area resident Kimber Romero, “so it’s kind of funny to me that we have drug court there.”

Judge Jason Lidyard was in the bleachers alongside the park’s small baseball diamond, leafing through his notes. Early in the pandemic after courthouses closed, he’d opted to hold these bimonthly sessions outdoors. At 40, he is among the youngest judges in the state, presiding over a district that stretches south to Santa Fe and north to the Colorado border, an area of nearly 8,000 square miles. Most of his criminal docket is linked to substance abuse: Rio Arriba County, where Española is located, has for decades reported overdose rates that are among the highest in the country.

A handful of people took turns descending to the bench the judge occupied. He returned their greetings and fist bumps, offered a face mask to anyone without one, then sat eye-to-eye with each person and asked how they were doing.

The participants did most of the talking: confirming whether they had adhered to their treatment regimen the past couple of weeks and venting about everyday challenges. A few people who’d had trouble arranging transportation, including Romero, phoned in. Lidyard listened attentively and reciprocated with disarming candor.

When one man likened the judge to the father figure he wished he’d had in his early life, Lidyard told him, “I lost my father when I was young, too.”

Drug and alcohol treatment courts have existed for more than 30 years and are often heralded as the single most successful intervention for diverting people with addictions away from the criminal justice system. Nationwide, an estimated 150,000 people are enrolled in them at any given time. Participants are typically allowed to avoid jail if they plead guilty and then begin a regimen of drug or alcohol rehab involving regular attendance at court, random urinalysis and some combination of counseling and treatment.

The judge is there to coordinate, cajole and, when necessary, coerce: If participants continue using substances or flout the court’s mandates, the judge can sanction them, including through rearrest. If they run the gauntlet successfully, which can take years, the judge can reduce or dismiss the charges.

But the drug court model, once widely viewed as a progressive alternative to jail, is increasingly criticized for widening the net of social control. Individual judges have great leeway but almost all of them use the threat of jail to demand abstinence. And by their very existence, drug courts assert the implicit claim that addiction is a crime rather than a disease.

This is where Lidyard’s court diverges: He does not expect clients to abstain from using—in fact, he assumes the contrary.

“I don’t care if you’re high, so long as you show up here,” he tells one. And informed by childhood memories of his own father’s addiction, he refuses to use jail as a sanction. “Only two things will get you kicked out,” he explains. “If you don’t show up, or if you commit new crimes.”

For 50 years, Northern New Mexico has been at the front lines of the war on drugs; now it may be the vanguard of change. Lidyard and others are leading the effort, determined to keep people with addictions out of the criminal justice system rather than allow them to be swallowed up by it.

“Rio Arriba is my petri dish,” he says. “What if we could actually use the criminal justice system to better people’s lives?”

Few perches provide a clearer view of the region’s challenges than the mobile unit of the Mountain Center, a nonprofit that crisscrosses Northern New Mexico doing what is called harm reduction: exchanging syringes and providing other services to minimize the adverse consequences of drug use.

On a recent morning the odometer of the white Nissan van read 164,000 miles when a crew of 20- to 30-somethings rolled out with 4,000 needles, a few dozen naloxone kits to reverse overdoses and strips to test for the presence of the synthetic opioid fentanyl. They began on the west side of Española, tracing a path that has varied over time as clients enter recovery, fall off the wagon, or die.

Northern New Mexico has borne the heavy burden of addiction since long before drug overdoses were recognized as a national scourge. Using an anonymized system, the Mountain Center counts about 2,000 of Rio Arriba County’s 30,000 adult residents as clients of its syringe exchange—1 in 15. Phillip Fiuty, who directs the center’s harm-reduction program, estimates that when you include people dependent on alcohol or stimulants, the true prevalence of substance use disorders is two to three times higher.

The government has predominantly responded to these problems through the criminal justice system. Regardless of party, New Mexico’s recent governors invariably positioned themselves as “tough on crime,” in the belief that harsher penalties would deter the redeemable and confine the rest to prison, making drug use the dominant focus of prosecutors and courts.

In Lidyard’s First Judicial District, possession of a controlled substance is the second most common charge after domestic violence, and attorneys and judges say more than half their caseload is drug-related. For decades, Rio Arriba County’s jail incarceration rate has exceeded the national rate by 50% or more.

Treatment options are also scarce: The county has never had a medical detox center, and the only two residential treatment programs that accept Medicaid are often short-staffed and forced to keep wait lists. The Mountain Center has operated for almost two decades but for much of that time didn’t have its own physical office, loading its van from a storage facility 20 miles down the highway. That reflects how marginalized harm reduction was, says Fiuty: Police would confiscate medical supplies the organization had distributed; courts would disregard clients’ participation and charge them for possession of paraphernalia. “For years, we were seen as a sort of pariah.”

Lidyard proved a kindred spirit.

Lidyard’s first exposure to addiction was more than a thousand miles distant, in the wealthy Cleveland suburb where he grew up. His parents were high school sweethearts and still young when they had their oldest child, Sara, followed by Jason two and a half years later.

His mother, Gail, was an extrovert who held a series of service-industry jobs while doing the bulk of the housework. His father, Chris, who worked for a time as a pipefitter and then at a family printing business, was more of a wallflower but had an adventurous spirit. As a teenager, he’d hitchhiked out West, and he still displayed his cardboard sign, scrawled with “Colorado or bust,” on a wall in their home.

The family was poorer than their neighbors but could afford the area thanks to the beneficence of Gail’s parents, who rented them their home, paid tuition for the children’s Catholic schooling and were a constant presence in their lives. As young children, the siblings were very close; Sara recalls they both wanted to grow up to be Supreme Court justices.

Some weekends, Chris would head out to play cards with friends and come back late or not at all. When he did, he’d retreat to his room for hours to sleep it off. The kids could sometimes hear him retching upstairs. Gail began to suspect he had an addiction when she did the family’s accounts and money was short, but when she confronted Chris, he denied culpability.

Looking back now, the family believes Chris was on a long-term job in Detroit when a colleague introduced him to crack cocaine. Soon his erratic behavior began spilling into public view. Once Sara entered a local soda shop and the owner told her: “Your dad owes me money. You can’t get anything here.” But in their privileged community, where the family had generational roots, there was little risk he’d be arrested. “I babysat for the police chief’s kids,” Sara says.

Isolated and uncertain where to turn for help, Gail ultimately enlisted her teenage daughter. They searched the phone book for nearby rehab centers and pressured Chris into going once, but he never went back.

“I think he was very ashamed of his addiction,” Gail says.

Jason and his dad spoke openly about his substance use only once. Chris was 45 and depressed after the business where he’d been working had closed. He called Jason, who was at Ohio University a few hours away, the first in his immediate family to go to college. “Your father has a drug problem,” he told his son. “I’ve been using cocaine for a long time and your mom just told me that she’s gonna leave me.” With no understanding of addiction, Jason told his dad, “You just have to choose between that and us.”

Jason was back in his hometown one weekend that fall when his sister reached him by phone: Their dad had overdosed. Sara rushed to pick up Jason, and they drove back to their parents’ house, where an ambulance was pulling out of the driveway, lights and sirens on. “We just get behind them and we follow them,” Jason recalls. “And then we get to this main intersection, like 10 minutes from the hospital, and the lights and sirens turn off.” When they arrived at the hospital and the paramedics unloaded the stretcher, the body was already shrouded.

Their father’s death brought the siblings closer. They spoke almost every day, as Jason tried to fill in the gaps in his childhood memories. Gail moved next door to her daughter, working several jobs and spending time with her grandchildren. The stigma clouding Chris’ death never dissipated for her. Nearly 20 years later, she still pauses before saying the word “cocaine” aloud, and then only in a whisper.

When Jason graduated from college, he decided he couldn’t face moving back to the Cleveland area bereft of his dad. Instead, he followed Chris’ old route to Colorado. There he fell into a job as a legislative staffer in Denver before going on to law school. Which is how in 2011 he found himself interviewing for a job with the district attorney of the First Judicial District of New Mexico.

A longtime prosecutor in the district, Angela “Spence” Pacheco was well into her first term as DA when Lidyard stepped into her office. She shrugs off the label “progressive”—”that’s what my enemies would call me”—but acknowledges her views are informed by her Hispanic heritage, her Catholicism and the years she spent as a social worker before pivoting to law. She had vetted hundreds of lawyers, but Lidyard was the only one she recalls arriving to the job interview in cowboy boots. “I was always on the lookout for individual thinkers who could challenge me on a constructive level,” she says. She hired him straightaway.

In Lidyard’s first years as an assistant district attorney, he distinguished himself through his diligence, but also his hardheadedness. Pacheco says he had a feverish work ethic but wasn’t a good listener and rarely admitted he was wrong. More often than not, though, he was right—and he got results. “He was a hell of a prosecutor,” says Morgan Wood, a public defender at that time. “I didn’t want to go to trial against him.”

Lidyard also showed an interest in lightening the criminal justice system’s touch. Assigned to handle drug cases, he began noticing similarities between his defendants’ behavior and that of his father. “That got my attention and my interest,” he says, “because I’ve always been trying to understand my father and…what addictions are about and how people get there and why it’s so hard to get out.”

Seattle had recently established the country’s first Law Enforcement Assisted Diversion program, known as LEAD, in which participating police officers who pick up people for low-level drug crimes take them to community-based treatment and support services instead of arresting them. Pacheco asked Lidyard to help replicate the program in Santa Fe.

The LEAD program launched in 2014, and an evaluation later found it significantly reduced participants’ rate of rearrest during their first six months in the program. Because participants were detained fewer days and needed less emergency medical care, researchers estimated the program saved more than it cost.

Lidyard said his involvement in LEAD was critical to his own evolution, but working collaboratively on a task force did not come easy. “Trying to get other people to buy into a new philosophy, trying to get other agencies on board, was always such a struggle,” he says. He was discouraged that, after five years of tirelessly promoting the program, he had made little headway winning over more officers or increasing the number of arrests they diverted. So, when a judgeship opened up, he decided to pursue it. Pacheco was skeptical, telling him, “No one knows you; you’re a kid from Ohio.” Still, she lent a friendly hand, advising his campaign. In June 2018 he beat an opponent in the Democratic primary, then won the general election unopposed.

He immediately looked for processes a judge could change wholly on their own authority. Drug court was one such opportunity. As a prosecutor he’d observed how judges ran drug courts and thought that many were too punitive. If a person missed a counseling session or skipped a urinalysis, the judge might have them arrested and jailed as a form of deterrent. Lidyard thought back to ride-alongs he’d done with police officers when he was prosecuting drug cases. “We’d go into houses and every once in a while, you’d see a drug court diploma on the drug dealer’s bedroom wall.” He reasoned: “Lasting change doesn’t come from being scared straight.”

The drug court he has operated since 2018 is his philosophy put into practice. He refashioned the team working on the court, contracting with the Mountain Center, which he felt saw more eye-to-eye with the clients than the previous treatment provider. Unlike many drug courts around the country that screen out clients with prior violent convictions or a pattern of habitual offending, Lidyard has no eligibility criteria. And although he still asks participants to undergo urinalysis, he never imposes a sanction for testing positive; he sees it merely as a monitoring tool to prompt the court and client to openly discuss what conditions they still need to fix. “He’s not using it as a punishment but more of a mirror,” says Fiuty of the Mountain Center.

In fact, Lidyard does not jail participants at all. In his view, someone stumbling in recovery is comparable to a diabetic failing to take steps to regulate their blood sugar: in need of more support, not more disruption. Instead, he focuses on developing strong relationships with clients. “When I became a judge, I decided I’m not going to create that revolving door,” he says.

Lidyard is not the only judge in the country to accept drug use as a given, but until the past five years, it would have been astonishing to see a drug court operate with so little coercion. The scientific basis for this approach is not new, says Shannon Carey, who has researched and evaluated hundreds of courts at the for-profit company she co-runs, NPC Research: “Since the time of Skinner and Pavlov, we’ve known that people and animals and even amoebas and rats all respond better to incentives than sanctions.”

Terrence Walton, chief operating officer of the National Association of Drug Court Professionals, says drug courts around the country have been evolving away from punitive approaches. When he previously directed treatment for a large court in Washington, DC, it applied a graduated list of sanctions for participants who continued to use drugs, up to jailing them for several days. “We didn’t know better. We believed that being really certain in responding to drug use was the way to go,” Walton says. Enough drug court participants have told him jail was a necessary wake-up call that he still thinks there may be some value in retaining it as a sanction.

Among the current participants in Valdez Park, and the larger group who have passed through Lidyard’s program, the answer isn’t clear-cut. Like many drug courts that provide a lot of individualized attention, the cohort is small—there are only 15 slots—and, given that recovery is a lifelong process, measuring outcomes is difficult. Lidyard says that many have made enormous if ineffable progress in their personal lives, and only two people who seriously engaged in the program have been arrested for new felony crimes. Over time, some success stories invariably stumble, but others speak with boldfaced confidence in Lidyard’s approach.

“If it wasn’t for this program, I’d be dead,” says Romero. An aesthetician who had struggled with alcoholism and been in and out of jail for years, she wound up in front of the judge in 2019 after police found her in the middle of the road at the end of a night of binge drinking, her ankle broken, her body covered in blood. “In the beginning, I really didn’t want to deal with it,” says Romero, now 50. “I just wanted to pay my fines or do whatever I had to do and be done.” But she knew she needed a drastic change in her life, and the structure and support of the drug court program allowed her to make it. Lidyard “recognizes when people are on a precipice of self-destruction or caged, they need positivity and guidance,” she says.

Lidyard has refashioned other areas under his purview, too. When people are arrested for drug crimes and brought before him to be arraigned, instead of ordering them to pretrial supervision and urinalysis, which he believes compounds defendants’ problems and deters them from reappearing in court, he requires them to attend an introductory meeting with a treatment provider and obtain two doses of naloxone.

And for people who have long struggled to extricate themselves from probation, he’s created a program he calls peer-supported probation, in which defendants meet with a person with their own experience of addiction rather than an officer. It’s led by 37-year-old Sixto Aguirre, whose shaved head is as smooth as bone and who sports a silver skull ring on each hand. Several years ago, Lidyard sentenced Aguirre for drunken driving. Aguirre still reports to his probation officer once a month—and this experience is crucial to the trust he’s built with his clients. “I’m on their level,” he says. “They like who I am, how I talk with them and that I don’t try to be something I’m not.”

Most of all, observers mention the attitude Lidyard displays toward his charges. “He treats them with respect,” Pacheco says. “He sees the person, not the addict.” Lidyard knows from personal experience that people who use drugs are still contributing to their families and society at large—and that jailing them could be hugely disruptive. “My father held a job his entire life despite his addiction and was such a loving, caring individual to me and my sister and my mother, despite what he was going through,” Lidyard says. “It reminds me that just because these people aren’t making all the decisions that we would want them to doesn’t mean that they don’t have value to other people.”

Although federal officials have warmed to harm reduction—Joe Biden is the first US president to prioritize it among his drug policies, and Congress made a small but symbolically significant appropriation of $30 million for such services as part of the economic stimulus package earlier this year—it is far from universally accepted. Syringe exchange programs are still prohibited in at least 11 states, and there has been a recent backlash against operations in states where they have long operated.

Lidyard has faced his own local detractors, too. Some prosecutors grumble that when they present cases in his courtroom he is “the best defense attorney in the room.” In his early years on the bench he developed a reputation for dressing down attorneys whom he did not deem adequately prepared. “I hold police and the prosecutors to a high standard,” he says, “and it’s not even like a high beyond what’s reasonable; it’s what the law requires.”

Meanwhile, Lidyard’s reforms are only possible because of the growth of treatment options outside of the criminal justice system. “The reason he is able to do that is because now there is a health-care infrastructure that will support it,” says Lauren Reichelt, who founded and has run Rio Arriba’s Health and Human Services Department since the 1990s. “If he had tried to do this 10 years ago, there would have been nothing to refer anybody to.” In 2017, the Mountain Center secured its first physical office space and has since built out a broad spectrum of services, offering medication-assisted treatment for addiction as well as full primary, mental health and reproductive care. In 2020 the center exchanged more than 2 million syringes, making it by far the largest such operation in the state.

Over time, local clinics and hospitals also developed more sophisticated treatment programs and hired qualified staff. The Rio Arriba Community Health Council, whose task forces bring clinicians together with representatives of the justice and education systems, has slowly convinced and trained a once-reluctant police department to carry naloxone. After a multiyear effort, in 2020 the county also got authorization to bill Medicaid for helping patients undergo substance abuse treatment and providing other behavioral health services.

Between 2014 and 2019 there were indications it was working: The county’s rate of drug overdoses fell 36%, according to state Health Department data, even as statewide overdose deaths climbed. But then the progress stalled, due to forces beyond the county’s control. Fentanyl arrived in November 2019—the Mountain Center, which sporadically tests residue from drug paraphernalia it recovers, says by now it is present in nearly all the heroin the center encounters—with the COVID-19 pandemic on its heels. Lockdowns that have isolated people from one another and disrupted access to drug treatment and medical care preceded a 29% increase in drug overdose deaths nationwide. Still awaiting a final count from the state Health Department, Fiuty estimates overdoses in Rio Arriba may have rebounded to their peak rate of one death per every 1,000 residents.

In late 2020, after voters reelected Lidyard for his first full six-year term, he followed through on a campaign promise to relocate from Santa Fe to Rio Arriba’s remote county seat, the unincorporated community of Tierra Amarilla, population 784. Judges who previously held his position would come occasionally to hear cases, but to Lidyard’s knowledge, he is the first to make a point of living there. “If you don’t know what’s happening in the community, then how can you apply the law?” he says. The lonely landscape seems an apt pasture for his ferocious and solitary concentration, but could also be seen as a retreat. There are 94 judges in New Mexico’s district courts; the influence of any one of them is limited. Changing the way justice is delivered requires winning over colleagues across and beyond the justice system, and it must outlast the individuals involved.

The program Lidyard worked on as a prosecutor, LEAD, is a case in point. After Pacheco retired, the initiative lost steam; it was later rebranded as THRIVE, and the Santa Fe Police Department effectively ceased participating. Of hundreds of drug-related arrests Santa Fe police made in 2020, they diverted only four people. “The numbers are lower than they should be,” says Kyra Ochoa, director of the city’s Community Health and Safety Department.

Addiction is a problem of monumental scale, Pacheco says, and real solutions—putting money into education, job training, housing and health—will take generations. “But that’s not what people want to hear,” she says. “They want to know how to fix it right now.” Peering through her turquoise-rimmed glasses, the retiree noted that Oregon had recently decriminalized all drugs by ballot initiative and wondered if that was a necessary step for New Mexico. “It’s far out—but you have to admit that what we’re doing doesn’t work.”

Critics say this would amount to admitting defeat and accepting drug use as a persistent part of our world. But people who have worked to address it for decades say this is merely realism. “Addiction will be with us forever,” Reichelt says. “But [it] doesn’t have to be completely crippling our society.”

In a sense, that is the provocative idea Lidyard poses whenever he works with a new defendant. “We think of success as: They never use substances again,” he says. “We need to look at it differently.”

A version of this story originally appeared in The Washington Post Magazine.

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