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01.26.11 Breaking-Bad-cover
Painting by Angela Moore

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
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

“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.
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