By Mike Linn
For almost 30 years Terry Hileman described himself as a casual substance abuser, someone who would raise cheers with friends and co-workers in area taverns on the weekends.
But two years ago, after the 48-year-old Albuquerque resident was arrested a third time for driving under the influence, he began to re-evaluate his description of himself.
On that night, Hileman and a female friend were at a bar in Albuquerque playing billiards, where he said he drank several alcoholic beverages.
“I ended up drinking quite a bit, more than what I should have,” said Hileman, who said for years he also smoked marijuana and occasionally used cocaine.
Before long, his female friend’s boyfriend showed up and took her away, leaving Hileman to drive himself home.
Hileman was arrested minutes later only two blocks from the Albuquerque Police Department. He spent 24 hours in jail that night, but said he has spent the last two years in a long overdue drought from drink and drugs thanks to Albuquerque’s DWI/Drug Court and Alcoholics Anonymous.
Initially, the district attorney who tried Hileman was seeking jail time. But Hileman said his attorney was able to get him 8 1/2 months of intense outpatient treatment offered through the DWI/Drug Court, which specializes in treating those who have been arrested three to five times for DUI.
The bargain, Hileman said, changed his life for the better.
“I owe it all to the DWI/Drug Court program and Alcoholics Anonymous,” Hileman said. “I would have lost everything (if I went to jail). I would have totally been just down the tubes, and I’m sure I would have continued when I got out, doing what I was doing.”
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There are more than 12 drug courts in New Mexico and roughly 1,000 nationwide, and proponents say they are far more effective than jail time and probation in keeping non-violent offenders off of alcohol and drugs.
Their success rates have caught the attention of officials with the 9th Judicial District Court, who have formed a committee to consider offering a drug court in the district, which includes Curry and Roosevelt County.
Graduates of Albuquerque’s DWI/Drug Court are about five times less likely to re-offend than those who are released from jail or probation from similar crimes involving substance abuse, according to Program Director James J. Stoker.
Moreover, taxpayer dollars used to fund a person’s stint in drug courts nationwide costs roughly $1 for every $9 to $13 spent if that person were incarcerated, Stoker said.
The cost to run the DWI/Drug Court in Albuquerque is about $9 a day per person. The drug court for the 1st Judicial District Court, which includes Rio Arriba and Santa Fe, costs about $13 a day per person.
By contrast, taxpayers allocate almost $40 a day to house and feed inmates in the Roosevelt County and Curry County detention centers, local officials said.
Don Burdine, administrator of the Curry County Detention Center, said probably 90 percent of his inmates are in jail on drug-related crimes. And a majority of Roosevelt County Detention Center inmates are serving time for something related to substance abuse, RCDC Administrator Jesse Luera estimated.
“I think it’s a waste of our money to put (drug offenders) in prison,” 9th Judicial District Public Defender Calvin Neumann said. “There are better things to do with greater expectation that they won’t re-offend.”
Neumann, along with District Judge Teddy Hartley, are among the chief promoters of a drug court in the district. Even District Attorney Brett Carter is an advocate.
But Neumann and Carter — courtroom adversaries — have a different opinion as to who qualifies for drug courts. Carter sees the court as an opportunity for first-time offenders to clean up their act, a second chance to dissuade them from a lifestyle that may lead to jail time.
Neumann, on the other hand, has a difficult time differentiating between a first-, second-, or even third-time non-violent drug offender.
The road to recovery is not black and white, Neumann said, and relapse is expected.
“Because of the nature of the addiction some people take longer than others to get to the point where they have any hope of staying off whatever substance they are accustomed to using,” Neumann said. “They relapse, and that’s understood, that’s part of the process.”
First-time drug and alcohol offenders would more than likely choose probation over the intense treatment and accountability standards set in drug courts, according to 2nd Judicial District DWI/Drug Court Judge J. Wayne Griego.
Clients of the drug court program must submit to random drug and alcohol tests anywhere from two to five times a week during the initial phases, whereas clients on probation may only submit to one drug or alcohol test a month.
Moreover, drug court clients in Albuquerque’s DWI/Drug Court must spend at least four hours per week in substance abuse counseling during the initial phases. Some of that counseling includes two weekly visits to Alcoholics Anonymous or Narcotics Anonymous.
The tight and rigorous standards, officials say, are what make drug courts so successful.
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Every drug court is different, but all drug court clients are held more accountable for their actions than clients on probation, officials said.
Drug tests are conducted randomly and frequently — especially in the initial phases — making it difficult for clients to cheat the system.
When a client does test positive for drug or alcohol use, the punishment is immediate: Within hours they are arrested and must serve jail time.
Griego, who sees clients about twice a month in his court, typically sentences first-time violators or clients who don’t report for a drug or alcohol test to 24 hours in jail. The second time a person violates, Griego may increase that time to seven days, and 30 days for a third-time offender.
And Griego said he doesn’t give much merit to excuses.
“Sometimes what you’re dealing with is people not realizing they’re in a program with strict requirements,” Griego said. “So what we end up dealing with a lot of times is people coming in with excuses.
“‘I tested positive because I drank Nyquil’ — that’s my favorite one.”
The excuses typically occur early in a client’s treatment, when they are testing the boundaries of the program.
“You want to be swift and harsh with them initially,” Griego said. “I’m the hammer in the whole system.”
When the only other option is jail, clients who don’t graduate from drug court make up a very small percentage of those who enter.
“If you don’t make this opportunity then you’re going back to jail,” Griego said. “It’s not like you can walk away from this. This is not a John Hinkley deal where you’re insane and get to go home for Christmas. That’s not going to work.”
Like many drug courts nationwide, the drug court in the 1st Judicial District Court will only admit drug offenders with no previous record of violent crimes, said district Drug Court Coordinator Lupe Sanchez.
Sanchez’s drug court has three phases, decreasing in intensity over the nine-month outpatient program. The program will treat drug offenders who have been arrested up to five times, Sanchez said.
Most drug courts in the state use contracted counselors from area hospitals, meaning a separate center for counseling may not be necessary, said Stoker, the 2nd district’s DWI/Drug Court coordinator.
A drug court team, or committee, will review the applicants for the program. The committees are typically made up of defense and prosecuting attorneys, a judge, a treatment counselor and a law enforcement official who conducts background checks.
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The most difficult hurdle for communities seeking a drug court in their area is financing, as the fight for money can be competitive, Stoker said.
The maximum funding the federal government will allocate is roughly $500,000, but even small communities can attain financing.
Typically, officials say, drug courts start with a small client load of about 35 and grow over time, when client loads are in the hundreds.
The first drug court in New Mexico started about eight years ago after government officials saw the need to reduce jail populations. Nationwide, jails and prisons are overrun with non-violent offenders who are stricken with a disease that keeps them hungry to avoid reality with mind-altering substances, said Robert Fraze, a Portales resident and the behavioral services manager over the chemical dependency unit for New Mexico Rehabilitation Center in Roswell.
The growing problem of substance abuse, Fraze said, is plaguing the lives of people nationwide. The solution to their problems won’t be found behind the bars of prisons and county detention centers, Fraze said.
The remedy, he believes, is intense treatment.
Hileman, the Albuquerque native who completed the DWI/Drug Court, is one example of how the strict guidelines and treatment of a drug court can change a life for the better.
Hileman works in the radiology department of the University of New Mexico Medical Center. He said he wants to go back to school, and he said he may become a licensed counselor to help others deal with their substance abuse problems.
For some with little education, a graduation certificate from a drug court means accomplishment.
One client Judge Griego remembers vividly was a 63-year-old man from Mexico whose first diploma came after he graduated from the DWI/Drug Court.
Griego said the man brought his entire family to the ceremony.
“I’m sitting in my office right now and looking at all the diplomas in my office and all they do is collect dust. And this guy got this certificate from the drug court program and was the proudest guy. And I thought, ‘You know what? This is what it’s about.’”