Pubdate: Fri, 20 Nov 2015
Source: Albuquerque Journal (NM)
Column: Judge for Yourself
Copyright: 2015 Albuquerque Journal
Author: Daniel E. Ramczyk


If Substance Abuse Is Not Treated, the Criminal Behavior Will Continue

What is my responsibility as a judge when a criminal defendant is 
suffering from alcohol or drug addiction?

In April 2003, I swore to uphold the United States Constitution, and 
to enforce the constitution and laws of New Mexico. How and when does 
court-ordered treatment for addiction fit into my judicial duties?

Addiction and crime are related. The National Council on Alcoholism 
and Drug Dependence reports that, every day, 36 people die and 
approximately 700 are injured in motor vehicle crashes that involve 
an alcohol-impaired driver.

The Council also reports that 80 percent of prison inmates abuse 
alcohol or drugs. Nearly 50 percent are clinically addicted.

And according to the Department of Justice, 37 percent of almost 2 
million convicted offenders currently in jail report that they were 
drinking at the time of their arrest.

Some believe that judicial involvement in treatment for addiction is 
highly effective because the judge wields a heavy hammer - i.e., jail 
- - over the defendant. Sometimes, though, the addict is perfectly 
willing to serve his time so that he can get back into the bottle or 
back to the needle without the hassle of probation and judicial oversight.

One thing is clear, however. If addiction and substance abuse are not 
treated, the criminal behavior will continue.

The Bernalillo County Metropolitan Court offers a DWI/Drug Court. I 
have had the honor of serving on this court twice in the past.

The team of judges, court staff and service providers all are 
dedicated to reducing the recidivism of chronic drunken drivers. The 
court is very effective.

But it also is specially funded and can accept only a limited number 
of defendants. And many defendants do not want to participate in such 
an intense program.

So, as a trial judge without the backup of a DWI/Drug Court program, 
how should I deal with a chronic alcoholic or drug addict while 
trying to carry out my more traditional judicial duties? It is not easy.

When I arraign a habitual criminal defendant with a history of 
chronic alcoholism or drug addiction, I must set conditions of 
release. Do I keep a chronic drunken driver or drug addict in jail 
pending trial, or do I release the defendant, for example, on his 
assurance that he will seek treatment? Is he being sincere? Will he 
actually go to treatment?

If he abandons treatment, who will let me know? How will we find him? 
Will he commit another alcohol-or drug-related crime? Treatment 
clearly is preferable to incarceration, but the safety of the 
community is no less important.

When I set a matter for trial, should I vacate the trial setting 
because the defendant has checked himself into a treatment program? 
Will the delay result in lost or destroyed evidence? Will witnesses 
become unavailable? What about the state's right to a speedy trial? 
What is more important, a speedy trial or immediate treatment of the 
defendant for substance abuse?

At sentencing, should I be more lenient with a defendant because he 
has attended 12-step recovery meetings while his case was pending? Or 
because he has sought treatment?

Should he be sentenced the same as any other defendant? Will it be 
safe to release him to probation instead of imposing jail? Did the 
defendant seek treatment because he had a desire for sobriety or 
because he thought it would make him look repentant in court?

And what of the requests from families of alcoholics and addicts? 
Families destroyed by alcoholism or drug addiction often will seek 
assistance from the courts.

Families sometimes plead with judges to mandate treatment and/ or 
incarceration before a defendant has even been convicted of any 
crime. Or, conversely, some families will assure a judge that they 
can "keep an eye" on the chronic alcoholic or addict, convicted yet 
again, if only the judge will release him from jail. These are 
difficult issues. We all want the suffering addict to receive 
treatment. He or she will have a much better life and our community 
will be safer.

At the same time, a judge should not endanger the community or 
unwittingly enable an alcoholic or addict by ordering treatment when 
incarceration is appropriate.

It all comes down to the addict's desire to get clean and sober. 
Without that desire, nothing anyone says or does will have much 
effect, if any, on the addict's behavior. And that desire necessarily 
must be determined by a judge in an individual case-by-case approach.

In reality, treatment for addiction is a phone call away. Anyone may 
call the AA Central Office here in New Mexico at (505) 2661900. 
Volunteers who answer the phone can direct an alcoholic or addict to 
all sorts of resources to combat substance abuse.

Albuquerque, alone, has numerous treatment centers and programs. 
Twelve-step recovery meetings are held around town all day, every 
day. If someone wants to get clean and sober in Albuquerque, the help is here.

Clearly, treatment for substance abuse should be part of my approach 
as a judge in the criminal cases assigned to me. But how and when to 
do it is a very complicated matter.
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