A judge in New Mexico has created an innovative drug-diversion program that doesn’t use the threat of jail time for convicted addicts in recovery, The Washington Post reported.
Judge Jason Lidyard did away with jail time for positive drug tests and minor violations for participants. He added a peer-supported probation component and collaborates with a local harm-reduction organization.
“I don’t care if you’re high, so long as you show up here,” Lidyard said. “Only two things will get you kicked out. If you don’t show up, or if you commit new crimes.”
The concept of designated drug and alcohol treatment courts has been used for several decades to divert people with addictions from the incarceral system. Such programs have reduced long-term prison sentences but also use the coercive threat of jail time for positive drug test results or minor violations. Critics argue this approach furthers the extent of social control and continues to treat addictions as a criminal problem as opposed to a health problem.
“I don’t care if you’re high, so long as you show up here… Only two things will get you kicked out:
If you don’t show up, or if you commit new crimes.”—Hon. Jason Lidyard
Lidyard is using his drug court in rural Rio Arriba County to experiment on how the criminal legal system can be used to “actually better people’s lives.” The key, he contends, is developing relationships with participants in the program. True to this philosophy, during COVID closures he held one-on-one meetings with defendants at a local park, ironically one known as a place to score drugs.
With traditional drug courts, the initial criminal charge — often a felony drug possession — hangs over people’s heads until they complete the program, which typically takes months or years. Violations result in flash incarcerations that repeatedly disrupt the ability to maintain jobs, housing, and parental and educational obligations.
Lidyard knows first-hand that addicts can still contribute to their communities and families. His father had a crack cocaine addiction that eventually cost him his life.
“My father held a job his entire life despite his addiction and was such a loving, caring individual to me and my sister and my mother,” Lidyard said. “It reminds me that just because these people aren’t making all the decisions that we would want them to does not mean they don’t have value to other people.”
Like many places, northern New Mexico is struggling with high rates of drug addiction — an estimated one in five residents — as well as all too frequent overdoses from drugs spiked with fentanyl, an extremely potent and toxic synthetic opioid.
In response to this drug crisis, local advocates and former addicts started a non-profit to provide harm reduction services such as mobile distribution of needles, naloxone overdose kits, and fentanyl test strips. These harm reduction services create synergy with Lidyard’s drug court, and neither could function without the other.
But implementing these efforts hasn’t been easy. The non-profit has had its supplies confiscated by police and some in the law enforcement community have resisted Lidyard’s reforms.
“Trying to get other people to buy into a new philosophy, trying to get other agencies on board, was always such a struggle,” Lidyard told The Post.
Before winning the judgeship, Lidyard worked for the district attorney prosecuting drug cases. He recalled ride-alongs with police where sometimes they’d raid a drug dealer’s house and find a drug court diploma on the wall.
“Lasting change doesn’t come from being scared straight,” he said. “When I became a judge, I decided I’m not going to create that revolving door.”
Lidyard’s diversion program still uses drug tests, not to punish with jail time but rather to monitor progress and prompt discussions about what participants still need to fix to find sobriety. His program also allows medical marijuana prescriptions.
In addition, Lidyard created a “peer-supported” probation program by hiring a peer mentor who had experienced addiction and incarceration to work with participants instead of a standard probation officer. Lidyard says this is crucial to building real trust and having people get through probation successfully.
“People who have experienced that same situation as others and have been able to find their way out of it, are so dedicated to trying to help other people get out too,” Lidyard said.
In Lidyard’s view, someone “stumbling in recovery is comparable to a diabetic failing to take steps to regulate their blood sugar,” and such a person needs more support, not more disruptions.
“We think of success as: They never use substances again,” Lidyard said. “We need to look at it differently.”
The program appears to be working based on county statistics and testimonials. “If it wasn’t for this program, I’d be dead,” said Kimber Romero, a program participant who has struggled with debilitating alcoholism. “When people are on a precipice of self-destruction or caged, they need positivity and guidance, and that’s what he always offered me.”