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An addict learns it’s not ‘impossible’ to stay clean

Jeanette Romero plays with her nieces on her mother’s patio recently. Romero says the Drug Court program has helped her learn it’s possible to “stay clean” and that her story of recovery “could change somebody’s life.” (Eddie Moore/Albuquerque Journal)

Jeanette Romero plays with her nieces on her mother’s patio recently. Romero says the Drug Court program has helped her learn it’s possible to “stay clean” and that her story of recovery “could change somebody’s life.” (Eddie Moore/Albuquerque Journal)

SANTA FE, N.M. — Her large dark eyes tear up when Jeanette Romero talks about how her late grandpa wanted her to kick her almost decade-long heroin habit. She wants to dump heroin to honor his legacy and to get herself a life.

She says she’s been getting high for more than half of her 28 years. She started with alcohol at age 12, and then moved up to cocaine and heroin in her 20s.

“I was on the streets, walking up and down, trying to hustle (for drugs), not having anywhere to get ready, shower … sleep,” Romero told the Journal recently. “It was really awful, strung out and not having hope at all.”

Now, Romero is in the 1st Judicial District’s Adult Drug Court program. She has a job, she has money in her pocket that she hasn’t stolen to support her drug habit, and she wants to go to school to learn how to open her own beauty salon.

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“It seems impossible, believe me, because I thought it was impossible to even stay clean a day,” she said. “But it’s not impossible.”

Romero is part of an unfolding story as local law enforcement agencies and the legal community get behind diversion and treatment programs meant to help addicts, keep them out of prison and stop the drug-jail-drug revolving door.

A veteran Santa Fe police detective believes 99 percent of local burglaries are tied to addicts, like Romero, needing to steal to pay for the drugs they crave.

Romero said the help she’s received from Drug Court Director Susan Billings and Drug Court Judge Mary Marlowe Sommer is the reason she was willing to go public for this article.

“This is a positive thing for me, you know, for Susan and the judge and them to see,” Romero said. “That means a lot because I’ve never done something positive like this for the public, to give back. … It’s hard, but somebody’s story could change somebody’s life.”

Those in the trenches of the legal system believe these types of programs have an impact.

“I do think with the respect to the individuals that go through Drug Court, yes, I do think that their recidivism definitely goes down,” Marlowe Sommer said.

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“Overall, the number of property crimes committed by the general population of the Drug Court participants has gone down.”

The Santa Fe Drug Court program started in 1997, and has had 263 graduates out of 769 participants.

For graduates, the recidivism rate is 16.4 percent, meaning that percentage of grads had felony arrests within three years of leaving the program. For all participants, including dropouts, the recidivism rate is 27 percent. The New Mexico Sentencing Commission has found that the overall recidivism rate for state prisoners is 44.6 percent.

The Drug Court has four goals for its participants, according to the program’s handbook: stopping their use of drugs and related criminal activity; helping them develop drug- and alcohol-free lifestyles; keeping them out of the prison system; and reducing their re-offending.

Categorizing Drug Court “as its own special animal,” Marlowe Sommer defined the court as “sort of an incentive/sanction approach or a rehabilitative/deterrent approach.”

The court is designed as an adjunct to traditional probation, Billings said. “What they call them is problem-solving courts. It’s aimed at stopping the revolving door with high-risk, high-needs offenders that don’t fare well with normal probation.”

From left, District Judge Mary Marlowe Sommer, treatment provider Brian Parkhill and Drug Court director Susan Billings, along with Lee Swanson, a court clinician, applaud Jeanette Romero for doing well in the Drug Court program, intended to help drug offenders kick the habit. (Eddie Moore/Albuquerque Journal)

From left, District Judge Mary Marlowe Sommer, treatment provider Brian Parkhill and Drug Court director Susan Billings, along with Lee Swanson, a court clinician, applaud Jeanette Romero for doing well in the Drug Court program, intended to help drug offenders kick the habit. (Eddie Moore/Albuquerque Journal)

A day in Drug Court

Marlowe Sommer presided over a room packed full of Drug Court men and women on a recent Thursday afternoon. Participants are called individually to sit at a table as their progress is reviewed to be either promoted to the next step or be called on the carpet for missing scheduled drug urinalysis tests or meetings and given additional hours of community service.

“I’m going through grieving counseling for the loss of my grandpa,” Romero told those at the table.

The Cities of Gold Casino in Pojoaque, where she cooks at the bowling alley concession stand, wants her to take on more responsibility.

“This is a very special day,” Marlowe Sommer announced, as she awarded Romero a Certificate of Achievement for completing Phase 2, or 20 weeks of the 36-week program, and having 25 clean drug urinalysis tests. The people in the courtroom applauded. “Thank you, guys,” Romero told everyone. But things weren’t looking so good for Romero last year when her grandfather Ernest Anaya died.

“My grandpa passed away last February and it’s been so hard … . I was already real strung out, I hadn’t gotten clean. I had been using … . He would always ask me, like beg me to get clean and stuff,” she said, her voice breaking. “I didn’t know how to handle it so I started doing meth and I was still doing heroin and I just wanted to die. I didn’t even want to live anymore. My life just sucked so bad.”

In prior years, her life was a string of convictions for shoplifting at stores on Cerrillos Road, car break-ins, a car theft, time spent in and out of jail, failed rehab and probation programs and GPS bracelets – sometimes cut off so she could run and use drugs again. It was a life of conjugal crime spent with her husband, whom she married in 2007, and who is currently in jail.

“I went back to jail,” she said. Authorities “wanted to send me to prison this time because I got too many chances, you know … they were really pushing for me to go to prison.”

Treatment instead of jail

Assistant District Attorney Jason Lidyard is assigned to the Drug Court and LEAD (Law Enforcement Assisted Diversion) program, a city of Santa Fe effort that’s in its initial phase.

“Concepts such as Drug Court and LEAD are geared toward focusing on the treatment aspect and understanding aspects of addiction as opposed to punishing someone for those acts that come along with being an addict,” Lidyard said. “It’s a better place to put your money.”

Emily Kaltenbach is the state director for the national Drug Policy Alliance and the co-chair of the mayor’s task force on LEAD. The city is putting $300,000 into the program over three years.

While Gov. Susana Martinez vetoed $140,000 lawmakers had approved for LEAD, Kaltenbach said failure to get funds won’t stop the program but will reduce the number of clients it can serve.

Santa Fe will be the second city in the country, after Seattle, to try LEAD, and Kaltenbach emphasized it’s meant to catch addicts who are nonviolent offenders before they go into jail and is a cheaper alternative to funneling people through the judicial system.

A non-police case manager is brought on to decide on treatment options for offenders. LEAD is not an abstinence program, Santa Fe Police Department Capt. Jerome Sanchez said. It’s meant “to reduce opiate addiction … it’s a harm reduction philosophy.”

In New Mexico, it costs $92.98 per day to house inmates in prison and $64.76 in county jails, while Santa Fe Drug Court spends $9.55 per person, according to figures provided by the court.

Santa Fe, with its typically liberal political outlook, supports the treatment vs. punishment concept, Lidyard believes.

“I think there is very little that a person who is addicted to a drug has in the way of choice. Once you have reached that physical dependency it is imperative that you take care of that need,” he said “For us to ask an addict who gets picked up on a possession charge … to go to prison for doing something that they have hardly any choice in doing … is completely out of touch with the reality of addiction.”

Aislihn O’Leary, 6, left, and her sister Ciara O’Leary, 4, with their aunt Jeanette Romero use chalk to draw on their grandmother’s patio recently. Romero is a recovering drug addict in the Drug Court program and Aislihn is writing “no smoking” to encourage her aunt to stop using cigarettes. (Eddie Moore/Albuquerque Journal)

Aislihn O’Leary, 6, left, and her sister Ciara O’Leary, 4, with their aunt Jeanette Romero use chalk to draw on their grandmother’s patio recently. Romero is a recovering drug addict in the Drug Court program and Aislihn is writing “no smoking” to encourage her aunt to stop using cigarettes. (Eddie Moore/Albuquerque Journal)

The Drug Court challenge

Beyond leading clients to long-term sobriety, Marlowe Sommer said, the Drug Court is meant to teach accountability and decision-making skills, but it also comes with a warning.

“When people are committing the property crimes and they are given the option of Drug Court, it’s a really hard program and from the bench sometimes I’ll say, ‘Are you sure you want Drug Court?’ because there are other options,” the judge said.

“Some of them, knowing how hard the program can be, still want the Drug Court program because A, they have heard good things about it, B, they have seen among their peers some successes and they want to be that person, and C, they are up for the challenge.”

If Romero does well, she will graduate in May and there will be cake to sweeten the deal. “I hope I can (continue to do well). This program is really helping me because it’s a structured program and I need structure in my life because without structure I’m out there,” she said.

Drug Court includes Moral Reconation Therapy (MRT), a cognitive behavioral treatment system for at-risk groups, Marlowe Sommer said. It’s about “how do you overcome some of your bad decision-making, that’s an example of a tool that perhaps they have never really thought through,” she said.

That structure has given Romero a life she wants to keep. “But living how I have lived for the past … five and a half months (off drugs), it’s like a life that I don’t ever want to give up again. I have never been clean this long on the streets, you know (since age 20).”

Romero said she loves her husband but can’t be with him if he continues his drug use.

“I have to think of myself. Nobody else is going to keep me clean but me and it’s hard but since I’m out here by myself I’m doing it. I have a job now, I have a car … I have my family back because there for a while they didn’t want nothing to do with me … . My mom and my dad have stuck by my side through everything. Like they wanted to give up and they couldn’t ’cause they thought I would die and I probably would have.”

Outside the courtroom, she clutches her Certificate of Achievement as her sister Georgette O’Leary and grandmother Mary Anaya stand nearby. A fellow Drug Court client gives her a hug.

While some like Romero are succeeding, others are not, said Marlowe Sommer.

“Sadly when some people have relapsed and we might be looking at termination they really, that’s when they really rise up and really argue for themselves: ‘No, don’t terminate me I really want this program. It’s the best thing that has ever happened to me.'”

So grandpa can rest in peace

More programs like Drug Court and activities for younger people are needed, Romero said.

“The heroin has just completely took over Santa Fe and Española … it’s everywhere now,” she said.

Three things helped turn Romero’s life around, she said. Drug Court gave her another chance and the judge’s warning of prison had an impact.

“That really scared me because I don’t want to go to prison, I don’t want to be away from my family and my freedom. The other thing is my grandfather … what’s helping me to stay clean is my grandpa, I believe. All he wanted me to do is live a clean life. All I want him to do is rest in peace and know that I am OK. So I decided enough is enough.”

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