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Special courts head off domestic violence

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — The mom in Metro Court Judge Sharon Walton comes out sometimes when she speaks to participants in the domestic violence repeat offenders program over which she presides.

So does the social worker, the psychologist, the prison warden and the problem solver – all roles that help her run a specialty court like this one, which handles some of Albuquerque’s toughest misdemeanor cases.

“How are you feeling?” she asks a 42-year-old man, whose conviction for a 2013 misdemeanor battery against a household member, the latest of many charges, landed him in the program.

The man, Walton is told in a meeting before court with his treatment coordinator and probation officer, is struggling with personal issues, which are threatening his sobriety.

“It’s a real vulnerable time when you’re feeling bad,” Walton tells him. “I don’t want you giving up on yourself.”

Also in the court this day is a 31-year-old woman who apologizes for not having anything but an oversized T-shirt and sweat pants to wear to court.

“Better than seeing you in orange,” Walton chides, referring to the color worn by Metropolitan Detention Center inmates.

It’s no joke. The woman was recently released from jail after a drunken fight with her partner in front of her kids culminated with his stabbing another man. The violence led to the removal of her children and a violation of her probation.

“You shot your own credibility,” Walton tells her as the woman begins to cry. “You need to figure out what you will do for your kids. Hopefully, we can offer some help. That’s what we’re here for. We really can help.”

That’s the specialty court’s mission: to hold defendants accountable but help them understand and deal with what causes them to offend. Only then, specialty court advocates say, will the cycle of violence be broken.

Two other Metro Court domestic violence-centered specialty courts – an early intervention program and a similar program designed specifically for military veterans – are presided over by Metro Court Judge Sandra Engel, who also has the same firm but motherly approach as Walton, offering words of encouragement and caring but putting the hammer down as necessary.

“I think participants can see we really care about their success,” Walton said. “But it is their program to work.”

Since fiscal year 2012, the early intervention programs have graduated 756 participants, with a recidivism rate of about 7 percent or 8 percent, according to Metro Court data.

Walton’s repeat offenders program has graduated 46 participants in that same time with a similar recidivism rate.

Such programs are an alternative and, it appears, a more successful way of dealing with offenders who might otherwise be tossed into jail briefly and then returned to the same toxic, violent lifestyles.

“What we’re trying to do is identify the trauma behind the violence,” Walton said.

Candidates are referred to the program by other Metro Court judges, prosecutors or defense attorneys.

All participants undergo intensive court supervision, counseling, alcohol and drug screenings. Probation officers and treatment coordinators work to find appropriate services to fit the needs of each individual and, when appropriate, the individual’s family and others affected by the violence.

Both judges conduct regular dockets on top of their specialty courts. Walton holds her domestic violence court during the noon hour. Engel holds her courts in the morning before the regular docket begins.

Staffers dedicated to the programs often work on their own time, Walton said.

The first offenders program runs a minimum of 26 weeks; repeat offenders can be in the program for about a year.

“We know we’re not going to fix everybody,” Walton said. “But maybe we help a little bit.”

For John Salazar, the help is life-changing. On this day, he is graduating from Walton’s repeat offenders program after beginning it in June 2013.

So Walton brings doughnuts.

Salazar, 46, admits that a $200-a-week methamphetamine habit contributed to his abusive behavior, but the program forced him to look at why he used and why he hurt others.

The program wasn’t easy, he says, and there were probation violations and angry words along the way.

This day, though, he stands next to Walton in front of a packed courtroom and gives her a hug.

“Judge Walton is the only friend I have who sent me to jail not once, not twice, but three times,” he says as onlookers chuckle.

He is 15 months clean, he says, and has a good relationship with his daughter. He is buying a home and plans to go to school to become a counselor to help others with addictions.

“I want to thank you for saving my life,” he tells Walton. “I was headed for death or incarceration long-term. But now each month I get better and I become more proud.”

Walton is proud of him, too.

“To watch you level out and have joy in life – it feels like a lasting change,” she tells him. “I know you’ve earned it.”

She offers Salazar a doughnut, leads the courtroom in applause and watches him walk out the doors, hopefully for the last time.

Which winch? I have lost count of how many of you readers caught a word gaffe in my Oct. 18 column about the successful removal of a decomposing cow carcass from the Rio Grande. In fact, the cow was tethered to a rope attached to a winch on a Corrales firetruck – not a wench, which would have been the better story. Thanks for pointing out my error with such wit and humor.

UpFront is a daily front-page news and opinion column. Comment directly to Joline at 823-3603, or follow her on Twitter @jolinegkg. Go to to submit a letter to the editor.

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