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Native court helps set an example

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — On a Thursday in mid-December, when a 36-year-old Navajo man appeared in court for the final step of his DWI case, the prosecutor turned to him and said “congratulations.”

Judge Renée Torres

She, along with his defense attorney, probation officer, judge, treatment providers and case management workers, had helped guide him through alcohol abuse treatment over the past year as he took part in the Urban Native American Healing to Wellness Court in the Metropolitan Courthouse.

Since he graduated the program successfully, he was sentenced to the time he had already served on probation.

In a short speech delivered to a half-full courtroom, including his mother, he announced he had been sober for the longest time since high school.

The Urban Native American Healing to Wellness Court is open to anyone who identifies as Native American, has at least two DWIs and no violent convictions. Participants attend regular court sessions and meet with care providers at First Nations Community Healthsource and the Evolution Group addiction counseling firm, where they are introduced, or re-introduced to Native customs, ceremonies and traditions. For instance, they can go on nature walks that stress a connection to the land, plants and Native values.

The program started in 2004 and ran until 2009. Then, after a lull of several years, it was reinstated in 2015. Since then, there have been 94 graduates. And while about 7.4% of the graduates ended up getting another DWI, others moved into their own apartments for the first time, enrolled in school and held down steady jobs.

Judge Renée Torres, who grew up on the Isleta Pueblo and was a tribal judge before she was elected to Metropolitan Court, took over the court in the spring of 2017. She said doing so keeps her connected to her community, since she no longer works on the pueblo.

“It’s really special to me because of the people that we have lost to alcoholism,” Torres said. “At least we’re helping other people that will maybe set an example for their family members, other community members, that if they get the help, they can get better, and get on a better path and live happier, healthier lives.”

In May 2018, a similar program began in 2nd Judicial District Court for defendants facing felony charges.

The programs are the only state-run Native American specialty courts, although some tribes across the country also run healing to wellness courts that incorporate Native customs and traditions.

Lorenzo Jim, of First Nations, said care providers are continually evolving, adding new groups and activities.

“Building connections, as well as building that cohesion, relationship with other participants, as well as, of course, just learning coping skills,” Jim said. “Living in Albuquerque it’s always good to find that balance of space for yourself.”

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