There might be some good news on the horizon for those caught in the revolving criminal door of drug addiction. Proposed state legislation would give judges the discretion to offer people with drug-possession charges a chance to participate in a treatment program instead of spending time in jail.
State Rep. Antonio “Moe” Maestas (D) introduced the Substance Abuse and Crime Prevention Act (HB 178) to address the complex issue. Maestas, who represents part of the Albuquerque’s Westside, says he thinks the bill has a good chance of becoming state policy during this 30-day session. Gov. Bill Richardson is supportive of the measure, he adds.
“This bill is necessary and long overdue," Maestas says. "The criminal justice system is not prepared to deal with the issue of drug addiction.” Possession of illegal drugs is a fourth-degree felony with an 18-month possible penalty, he says. “Incarceration for drug violations is inhumane,” he adds. “Putting someone in jail for 18 months does nothing to protect the community.”
Maestas and former Gov. Gary Johnson gave rousing speeches at the International Drug Policy Reform Conference in Albuquerque last year [" The War on the War on Drugs," Nov. 19-25, 2009]. “The support is there to make this change; it is just a matter of getting the bills moving before the session ends.” Maestas says.
“Incarceration for drug violations is inhumane. Putting someone in jail for 18 months does nothing to protect the community.”
Rep. Antonio “Moe” Maestas
In a similar measure in the state Senate, Albuquerque Sen. Bernadette Sanchez (D) introduced a memorial asking for a drug policy task force to review and develop effective changes to how the justice system deals with the issue of substance abuse.
Outspoken drug policy reform opponent Darren White—Albuquerque’s chief public safety officer—agrees that incarceration doesn’t stop drug abuse. "There is not a jail cell in the country that will shake a person's addiction to do drugs. In that respect, we do a miserable job," White says. But he’s not in favor of Maestas’ measure. "I support the drug court model over this legislation.” White adds that without the threat of jail, addicts may not comply with treatment programs because there is no accountability.
Maestas' bill includes the condition that if someone violates the terms of participation in a substance abuse treatment program, then the court may reinstate the criminal proceedings.
About 82 percent of the estimated 6,000 people in the state’s prison system were assessed to need substance abuse treatment, according to stats from the Legislative Finance Committee’s report on Maestas’ bill. That committee also reports that in New Mexico, one in 25 African American men between the ages of 20 and 34 are behind bars, and one in 90 Hispanic men 18 or older are in jail.
“There is not a jail cell in the country that will shake a person's addiction to do drugs. In that respect, we do a miserable job.”
Darren White, Albuquerque’s chief public safety officer
Attorney Mary Carmack has seen the problem up close. She has worked as a public defender and is in private practice as a criminal defense attorney. She says policy changes such as HB 178 would finally bring some sanity to drug crimes. “For far too long, New Mexico has treated nonviolent drug offenders exactly like robbers, rapists and murders,” she says.
The last 25 years saw a 700 percent increase in the number of New Mexican women put in jail, with one-third of those being drug charges. Sheila Ciminera helps repair the devastation caused to women who are incarcerated for drugs. She is a case manager for Crossroads for Women, a transitional housing program for women returning to the community after incarceration. “People are going to accomplish good things by working on themselves and their problems rather than sitting in jail doing nothing,” Ciminera says. “Treatment makes all the difference in their lives and the lives of all of their extended families.”
Ciminera says substance abuse does not just impact the user; it ripples out and impacts every member of a family. “When a family member does drugs or relapses, so does whole family,” she says.
When Myra Wilson faced drug-related charges, a judge sent her to into treatment instead of jail. She went to the New Mexico Women's Recovery Academy where she could bring her children. She worked the six-month program, she says, and it made all the difference in her life—and the lives of her children. Wilson is an outspoken supporter of Maestas' legislation. She is back in school and works with the Wings Ministry, bringing the message of treatment and recovery to families of incarcerated substance abusers. "You can hide your head in shame, or you can embrace the problem and try to help others," she says.
“We don't have very many programs here, and the ones we have are crowded and have long waiting lists.”
Attorney Mary Carmack
Some in the state have already sought more efficient ways of handling drug abuse cases. Bernalillo County District Attorney Kari Brandenburg saw a need for alternative programs when she took office in 2001. The three-term district attorney set up several programs that divert nonviolent drug offenders into drug court or a pre-prosecution program, both of which require substance abuse treatment. These are more cost-effective than going through the often lengthy court system, according to Pat Davis, spokesman for the District Attorney's Office.
"We are ahead of the game, and as far as I know, we are the only district to offer these alternative programs," Davis says. "Offering these types of programs costs very little to administer and is quicker for all than going through the courts."
The Bernalillo County Commission will consider a half-million dollar proposal that would expand the opiate substance abuse treatment program in the Metropolitan Detention Center to include using Suboxone, a safer alternative to methadone. Commissioner Maggie Hart Stebbins says more than 300 people go through opiate detox each month at the regional jail, and when they are released, they often relapse. Starting the Suboxone treatment while incarcerated and continuing the treatment when released could go a long way toward preventing a return to jail.
So what are taxpayers spending on addicts in jail? According to the Legislative Finance Committee’s fiscal impact reports, the state spends an average of $22 million each year to incarcerate nonviolent drug offenders. The average annual cost is about $28,000 per male inmate and $33,000 per female inmate. An adult out of custody in an inpatient facility can be treated for around $6,500.
In contrast, various types of outpatient treatment programs can be implemented for between $1,300 and $2,000 annually per person. Every dollar put into any substance abuse treatment results in an estimated $7 savings to taxpayers.
There are several private drug treatment centers in the state, but those can come with a price tag of more than $10,000 for a 90-day program. The state, the Salvation Army and Health Care for the Homeless operate another half-dozen or so, but the waiting list is long—sometimes up to several months.
Attorney Carmack says it’s difficult to get people into treatment because of the costs and the availability. “We don't have very many programs here, and the ones we have are crowded and have long waiting lists,” she says. “I hope this legislation uses some of that money that is being saved to fund more beds for inpatient programs, more counselors and more services.”