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Metro court launches alternative sentencing for some auto theft suspects

District Attorney Raúl Torrez, left, speaks at a news conference to announce the launch of the STOP program designed to address non-violent substance abuse-related crime in Bernalillo County. (Adolphe Pierre-Louis/Albuquerque Journal)

District Attorney Raúl Torrez, left, speaks at a news conference to announce the launch of the STOP program designed to address non-violent substance abuse-related crime in Bernalillo County. (Adolphe Pierre-Louis/Albuquerque Journal)

Certain people arrested driving stolen cars in Bernalillo County now have an alternative to jail or prison.

The Substance Abuse and Treatment Option Program, or STOP, was announced with support from local court and law enforcement officials at a news conference Wednesday.

Judge Edward Benavidez, chief judge of Bernalillo County Metropolitan Court, said the program is designed for non-violent offenders who are arrested for automobile theft and will require that the offender serve probation and receive at least 15 months of substance abuse treatment instead of serving time in jail or prison.

The new specialty court, which started accepting defendants in July, will be similar to other alternative courts in Bernalillo County, such as the DWI Recovery program.

“This is something that, in the long run, is going to do great things to enhance public safety,” District Attorney Raúl Torrez said.

The Albuquerque area had some of the highest rates, if not the highest rate, of automobile theft in the country per capita in 2016 and 2017. And fighting the crime has become a priority for both the police and sheriff’s departments. Through September, there were 1,653 stolen cars reported in Albuquerque, which marked a 28 percent decrease from 2017.

But the rate remains far too high, law enforcement officials have said.

Receiving or transferring a stolen vehicle in New Mexico is a fourth-degree felony punishable by up to 18 months in prison. In order to enter STOP, the offender has to plead to two misdemeanor crimes, which carry a possible punishment of two years in jail or prison.

That plea deal allows the car thief to avoid a felony conviction, but they could possibly serve more time in custody if they fail to meet the requirements of the program.

“That’s the great advantage for them, that they can avoid a felony conviction. … But they are pleading to more jurisdiction than what the crime itself has,” Benavidez said. “They are either going to get treatment and get rehabilitated or they are going to pay the price.”

Stolen vehicles have been linked to other more serious crimes, such as armed robbers who use them as getaway vehicles. But law enforcement officials said they are still committed to using alternative courts for people arrested in stolen vehicles but who don’t have violent criminal histories.

“If we do stop them while they’re en route (to committing a more serious crime), maybe we can prevent them from committing violent crimes, and get them in the program and rehabilitate them,” Albuquerque Deputy Chief of Police Roger Banez said. “So I’m not concerned.”

The program will have an initial capacity for 30 people, but Benavidez said, if successful, the court hopes to grow the program. It is funded through a combination of federal grants and Metro Court’s general fund, so the offender won’t have to pay for any of the necessary treatment.

Treatment will include alcohol testing, face-to-face interactions with the program judge, intensive outpatient treatment, weekly group therapy and other supplemental therapy, such as Alcoholics Anonymous.

Judges Jill Martinez and Kenny Montoya will oversee the program. First Nations Community Healthsource will provide the outpatient treatment.

“We want to be able to find different options instead of re-offending,” Sheriff Manuel Gonzales said. “The bottom line is, we need to have options. And these are positive options.”

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