THE ROAD TO RECOVERY

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(Editor’s note: This is the eighth of a year-long monthly series about how alcohol and drug addiction affects the community and how those affected work to achieve a better life.)

(Editor’s note: This is the eighth of a year-long monthly series about how alcohol and drug addiction affects the community and how those affected work to achieve a better life.)

Our judicial system is carefully built upon a system of checks and balances that ensure everyone involved gets a fair shake.

Julia M. Dendinger-News-Bulletin photo: The 13th Judicial District Courthouse in Los Lunas is the home of Valencia County’s Adult Drug Court. Participants meet every two weeks in front of a district court judge as they work through the 12-month program.

And as fair as that system is, the people who walk out of the courtroom ultimately can be placed in one of only two categories — winners or losers.

As with most legal proceedings, the definition of what is a win and what is a loss is purely subjective.

But there is one courtroom in Valencia County that — if the participants are willing — everyone can walk out of a winner.

Every two weeks, on Thursday morning, District Court Judge William Sanchez comes down to the first floor of the courthouse to preside over adult drug court.

The five-year-old program is a second-chance for local offenders with drug and alcohol addictions, says program manager Donald Garley.

Participants usually enter the program one of two ways — they are referred by a probation officer or a judge orders them into the 12-month program.

Garley said there are people in the program voluntarily, who aren’t on probation. A recent graduate came back after a very stressful situation in her life, he said.

The year-long program is divided into four phases. During the first phase, participants are drug tested three times a week, go to individual and group counseling once a week and attend court every other Thursday to update Garley and Judge Sanchez on their progress.

Phases two, three and four are the same, except the drug tests are reduced to twice a week, Garley said.

The first time someone tests dirty, it’s 24 hours in jail. The second time, they get 48 hours behind bars and the third time, Garley says program coordinators “do whatever we need to get their attention.”

Garley has been the program manager since its inception. The adult drug court was formed after New Mexico Sen. Michael Sanchez (D-Belen) and the 13th Judicial District Court worked together to obtain funding.

“This is a great program. Our recidivism rate is still zero,” Garley says. “Now there are a few who had problems with probation violations, but they committed no new crimes.”

The court boasts about 55 graduates in its five-year tenure, he said.

Last Thursday, two young men were graduating and starting down the road to a new life while two more were just beginning.

An audience of nearly two dozen participants listened as Judge Sanchez welcomed the new participants and issued a warning: Bring in someone else’s urine to try and game the system and face a fourth- degree felony.

He also talks about the people sitting behind the new members. They are there to help them succeed.

One by one, the men and women talk with the judge about how the last two weeks have gone. For the most part, things are unchanged — they are taking care of their children, spouses and parents, working jobs, looking for jobs, going to school and otherwise staying clean and out of trouble.

The judge asks about their families, even advises one man who works as a handy man to consider advertising on Craig’s List.

Sanchez, the senior judge in the district, smiles and encourages, laughs and even makes an exceptionally bad joke.

“What did the pork chop say to the steak? Nice to ‘meat’ you,” Sanchez says, all the while saying it was Garley who came up with the horrendous pun in the first place.

There are groans, chuckles and a lot of head shaking from those in the gallery.

“The judge is very relaxed with them,” Garley says after court adjourns for the day. “But I tell them, he is a very different person on the third floor.”

Sanchez shows his sterner side when he talks to one young man in the program, reminding the man that his friend sits in the Valencia County Detention Center, unable to be a part of the program due to something as petty as repeated traffic violations.

While it may be the small things that can break a person’s journey to recovery, the participants say the program allows them to accomplish things they never thought possible while high.

One of the new graduates, who asked that his name not be used, called the drug court program life changing.

“I wasted 15 years of my life and had nothing to show for it but needle marks,” the 30-year-old said. “You will get out what you put in. If you are willing to do the work, you will succeed.”

While in the program, he earned his GED, is now holding down a full-time job and is enrolled in college courses, working toward a degree in history.

Saying he did “everything,” the graduate admitted substance abuse was about making him feel whole.

“I finally figured out I don’t need that,” he said.

His smile is one of genuine happiness as he helps himself to a banana from among the snacks brought out to celebrate graduation day.

His fellow graduate, who asked we not use his real name, is 21 and married with two children. Zane was facing four years in prison, but instead his probation officer sent him to drug court as part of his 2 1/2-year probation.

“Like a lot of people here, I came from poverty, a broken home,” Zane said.

Bored and broke, he got high for the first time at age 11.

“Everyone got into drugs,” he says.

Drug court is a second chance, Zane said, and a great program if you want to do the work.

“I learned a lot about myself. I had a lot of anger from my childhood,” he said. “I learned I don’t need drugs to have fun. It was a waste of my life, my time and my money.”

Vanessa is 31 and from Los Lunas. She was in drug court with her 4-year-old daughter.

She has been in the program for six months. Vanessa, who asked that we not use her last name, was on probation violation when her urine tested dirty for illegal drugs.

Vanessa said she would go see her probation officer, leave there and immediately use. She figured out how long she could use before her next visit and still have enough time to get clean for her urine test.

“I miscalculated that time,” she says with a wry chuckle. “This was God’s way to help me.”

After her daughter was born, her own father died and the father of her child walked out of their lives. Vanessa held on for 10 months, but the stress became overwhelming, so she turned to meth to check out.

With a child to support, she has been looking for a job for four years. Last week she told the judge she had found one.

“I have accomplished a lot more here than I would have on my own,” she said. “My relationship with my mom is better, too.”

She would leave her daughter with her mother and go get high.

Through the program’s mandatory counseling, Vanessa has learned a lot about herself.

“I realized that if I put my mind to something, I can do it,” she said.

Frank Corral, 47, was more than willing to have his name published.

“A few years ago, my son was killed. I thought I was strong, thought I had things together,” Corral said. “But I fell flat on my face.”

He started drinking.

After a few run-ins with law enforcement, and charges ranging from evading arrest to trying to disarm an officer, the 47-year-old was put on probation and referred over to drug court.

“At probation it felt like they didn’t really know my situation. I came here and they said, ‘We’re your friend.’ Here it felt like I had friends, like somebody cared,” he said. “God helped me be around good people.”

The program allowed him to clear the cobwebs out of his mind, Corral said, and focus on the good in life.

“I want to help others out. If I had to do this again, I would,” he said. “You get to know the judge, to talk to him, laugh and joke. We all work together as a team. Like Donald (Garley) says, the past is the past; it’s not your future.”

Corral has three weeks left in drug court and then another 10 months of probation.

Many of the participants are in their final phase of the program and Garley says he is extremely proud of what they have accomplished.

“Champions are made in the fourth quarter,” is what he likes to say.

“You know, we all live in this valley. That’s what this program does — it brings people back to life in this valley,” he said.

“If they do the work, they will succeed. When they quit, they end up over there — VCDC,”

Garley points north through the courtroom window toward the county jail.

“One hundred percent.”


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