Belen Magistrate Court implements program for veterans, DWI offenders

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Belen Magistrate Court officials are on another track.

That track comes in the form of offering veterans who are DWI offenders a chance at rehabilitation by addressing their specific needs.

The Veteran's Court started after court staff attended a five-day training course in Irvine, Calif., in July that was paid for by the U.S. Bureau of Justice.

The training is designed to assist jurisdictions in the planning and development of Veterans Treatment Court programs.

The Belen Magistrate Court was the first in the state to receive the training. The court is made up of prosecutors, law enforcement and judges.

"We address their needs at every level," said DWI Drug Court Program Coordinator Gilbert Romero. "We address their mental health needs as far as a traumatic brain injury, post traumatic stress disorder and substance abuse."

Romero said in the past, veterans were treated alongside people who were known felons and others with long criminal records. He said vets would often not get the help they needed, and instead would be more likely to re-offend.

Under the new track, veterans would be included with the 12-month drug court program and would get help from experts who deal with people who have disorders such as post traumatic stress disorder or a traumatic brain injury.

Valencia County Drug Court is a year-long program where offenders report to a supervised probation officer a few times a week and are required to wear a bracelet that detects alcohol use. Offenders also receive outpatient treatment in the point-based program.

"These are guys that have already had a third and fourth (DWI)," Romero said. "Instead of going onto prison, they agree to come to this program."

Belen Magistrate Danny Hawkes, an Iraq war veteran, said he thought the new component would be a good way for veterans to get the treatment they need.

He first learned of the initiative after hearing of a similar program implemented by a superior court in Buffalo, N.Y., in 2008.

The Belen court was required to complete pre-training worksheets, attend the training program and maintain routine correspondence with program staff, and submit a Veterans Treatment Court implementation plan.

Hawkes, who served in Desert Storm, said he thought it was important for DWI offenders to receive specialized rehabilitation. Belen court officials works with the Albuquerque Veteran's Hospital to ensure the rehab is effective.

"We are making a better quality of life for veterans in Valencia County," Hawkes said. "We are attending to their needs."

The new component officially started this month and officials are in the process of applying for a federal grant to be able to operate a stand-alone program for veterans. As it stands now, the veteran's court all done on a volunteer basis.

Romero said he hopes to apply for the grant in January so that offenders problems don't escalate to the point where they wind up back in prison.

He said so far, none of the graduates of the drug court program have re-offended.

"It's important," Romero said. "Veterans have a very different need."


-- Email the author at bruffner@news-bulletin.com.