DA's office: Diversion programs are under utilized - Albuquerque Journal

DA’s office: Diversion programs are under utilized

Copyright © 2022 Albuquerque Journal

Those tasked with defending people accused of crimes in New Mexico say over-incarceration is exacerbating behavioral health outcomes in the state and legislative analysts point to treatment gaps in the system as missed opportunities to address the issue.

An Aug. 18 Legislative Finance Committee report on behavioral health outcomes versus access cited significant treatment gaps in the criminal justice system. Analysts recommended better utilizing diversion, drug courts and reentry services, noting they are “not necessarily widely available or used efficiently.”

Social Work Director KC Quirk of the Law Offices of the Public Defender said over-incarceration fuels many behavioral health issues in the state.

The effect of being behind bars, she said, can send devastating ripples into a person’s life that can reverberate for generations.

“The justice system sits at the precipice of the trajectory of a person’s life. And in a nanosecond, makes decisions that will forever impact somebody’s life,” Quirk said. “And I don’t think they take enough care.”

Adolfo Mendez, chief of Policy and Planning with the 2nd Judicial District Attorney’s Office, said they have been “raising the alarm” that diversion programs and specialty courts “are way under capacity” and are taking action to change that.

He said the DA’s Office has eliminated logistical and financial barriers to diversion, having a diversion officer in court to do intake “then and there,” eliminating fees associated with the diversion program for public defender clients and removing the “admission of guilt” requirement.

Mendez said they have 167 people enrolled in the felony diversion program and 41 in the misdemeanor program, double what it was a few years ago. He said they want to see the programs full and have the capacity for up to 400 people.

Mendez said they are also trying non-traditional methods to keep people from falling into the system, having a mobile center that connects people in the International District, known for its high crime, with resources and referring relatives or those close to someone involved in a crime with treatment and resources.

“As a community, we need to strive for a criminal justice system that applies the optimum intervention for the right offenders at the right time,” said 2nd Judicial District Attorney Raúl Torrez, who is running for Attorney General. “While our focus remains on the most violent repeat offenders, the DA’s Office is committed to utilizing every available diversion program for low-level nonviolent offenders who have mental health or substance abuse disorders.”

In New Mexico, the roots of those accused in homicides and violent offenses can often be traced back to property crimes and drug-related charges. Child abuse deaths frequently follow red flags and reports of neglect.

A rise in violent crime over the past several years has led to public scrutiny and political debate on issues like bail reform, referred to as “catch-and-release” by critics. A recent Journal poll found 85% of New Mexicans support changing the law to make it easier for judges to hold people accused of certain crimes behind bars.

Quirk said having more people in and out of jail only increases the number of New Mexicans with substance use disorders and mental illness. She said the state should intervene before people go on to commit serious crimes and emphasize services over punishment.

Quirk said the justice system should also treat each case individually; a drug charge doesn’t always equal addiction and six domestic violence counseling sessions, a common order, won’t always un-entrench generations of witnessed spousal violence.

“We’re missing it by just ordering people off to programs instead of really assessing what they need,” Quirk said.

Furthermore, she said, the state needs to pay attention sooner. Working in victims services, with domestic violence and other cases, Quirk realized that “offenders” are often survivors of their own traumas.

That could mean assessing Adverse Childhood Experiences – survey scores when children go in for family medical care and offer services to soon-to-be-parents. Quirk’s vision of restorative justice: start young.

When a child gets in trouble for vandalizing a school, for example, she said he should have to meet with those who the graffiti impacted, such as the janitor.

“It’s not even young people with mental health (issues), but it’s young people with (bad) behavior. If we address it, maybe we can curtail something in the future,” Quirk said.

She lamented that, if we’re going to have people locked up in a place like the Bernalillo County Metropolitan Detention Center, what she calls the “largest mental health facility in the state,” the county should at least take advantage by pouring more services into the jail like life skills and therapy.

She recalled a woman she worked with who had started a prison sentence, unable to read. The woman was released 22 years later, still unable to read.

“Tell me how that happens? And how her life is going to be better?” Quirk said. “(To) come out with no more educational skills than you had before you went in? That’s not moving someone forward.”

Quirk said at Crossroads for Women they taught the woman to read in a year.

“I think it’s been too easy to just say, ‘Oh, lock them up,’ instead of really figuring out … what the response needs to be,” she said. “We’ve continued to cause great, great harm … And it’s never ever just the person who goes to jail. It’s their family. It’s their neighborhood. It’s the community around them. It’s every life that their life touched is now impacted somehow by their incarceration. Some for the better, maybe, but a lot for the worse.”

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