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Program makes trials real

Mckenize Russell talks to South Valley Academy students about the consequences of her actions after she was sentenced for DWI during a recent session of the “Courts to Schools” program. (Greg Sorber/Albuquerque Journal)

Mckenize Russell talks to South Valley Academy students about the consequences of her actions after she was sentenced for DWI during a recent session of the “Courts to Schools” program. (Greg Sorber/Albuquerque Journal)

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — Judge Sandra Engel’s courtroom doubled as a classroom on a recent week day as she sentenced convicted drunken drivers and spoke with students about the dangers of alcohol and driving.

Engel, a Bernalillo County Metro Court judge, set up her courtroom in the cafeteria at South Valley Academy. She heard cases and sentenced defendants before taking questions from the audience, made up of 110 juniors and seniors. The judge had the help of defense attorneys, prosecutors and State Police officers, who stayed behind to help answer questions.

“I think we wanted to convey (to students) the dangers of drinking and driving, and that they need to make better choices,” Engel said after the “Courts to Schools” program.

Bernalillo County Metropolitan Court Judge Sandra Engel hands down a sentence while holding court at South Valley Academy. Engel said the program aims to show students “the dangers of drinking and driving, and that they need to make better choices.” (Greg Sorber/Albuquerque Journal)

Bernalillo County Metropolitan Court Judge Sandra Engel hands down a sentence while holding court at South Valley Academy. Engel said the program aims to show students “the dangers of drinking and driving, and that they need to make better choices.” (Greg Sorber/Albuquerque Journal)

She told the students it was up to them to stay out of harm’s way.

“We’re going to leave this gym and you’re going to have to make your own decisions,” she said.

Engel said she and a handful of other Metro Court judges have been running the Courts to Schools program since 2010, holding court sessions in different Albuquerque schools. The judges try to visit a school at least once every two months.

The defendants who were sentenced last week were willing participants in the program and earned some leniency in their sentences by their involvement.

After the judge handed down the sentences, the defendants talked to students about their jail experiences, the money they had to spend on fines and interlock ignitions .

“There is no excuse. It’s just bad decisions,” said defendant Mckenize Russell after she was sentenced for a DWI offense. “You have to look your family in the eyes, which is difficult.”

After she spoke to students, Russell was handcuffed and taken into police custody.

A DWI defendant who was just sentenced is handcuffed and led away during a court session at South Valley Academy. (Greg Sorber/Albuquerque Journal)

A DWI defendant who was just sentenced is handcuffed and led away during a court session at South Valley Academy. (Greg Sorber/Albuquerque Journal)

For about an hour, students lobbed questions to the judge, attorneys and police officers, including a request for specifics of New Mexico’s DWI laws.

Ray Martinez, a 17-year-old junior at the South Valley charter school, said the program was enlightening.

“(The defendants) do have to take responsibility for what they did and what will happen to them,” he said.

Engel and the other speakers also told the students about driving with other intoxicants, like marijuana and other drugs. They urged the students to avoid drugs and alcohol altogether.

Engel said showing students the court process and letting them ask questions is more engaging than having them listen to a lecture.

South Valley Academy Principal Stewart Paley said the program is great for high school kids because they are faced with the choice to drink.

He agreed with the judge that the program’s format reaches students.

“It makes it real,” he said.
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