ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — For a couple of hours Wednesday morning, the auditorium at West Mesa High School was transformed into a DWI courtroom – not for a theatrical production unfolding on the stage, but for actual legal proceedings decided by a judge.
Metropolitan Court Judge Sandra Engel presided from a bench as defendants and their legal counsels sat at one table and prosecutors and probation officers at another. All were flanked by officers from the Albuquerque Police Department and the New Mexico State Police.
The students who packed the auditorium were watching justice unfold in real time as part of the Courts to School program, which was started by Engel in 2010 and has since conducted proceedings in 40 schools around the metro area. In each of those sessions, two or three defendants who pleaded guilty to driving while intoxicated were sentenced and then directly addressed the students about how the consequences of their bad choices affected them and their families.
“Information is power, and we want students to have that information about what DWI really looks like, what happens when you drink and drive and what the court process looks like when you get arrested,” said Engel. “We’re not a Scared Straight program, we’re more of an interaction program, where students get to see live sentencing, and get exposed to related issues during a question and answer period.”
The defendants selected for the program are second-time DWI offenders. They each received 90 days in jail with all but four days suspended. They are also given probation with conditions, including random drug and alcohol testing, installation of an ignition interlock on their vehicle, 48 hours of community service, though eight hours are suspended for participating in the program, attendance at a Mothers Against Drunk Driving-sponsored impact panel of victims affected by DWI, and pay a fine, court costs and fees totaling about $750.
Two men and a woman were sentenced and spoke at the Courts to School session. Before being handcuffed in full view of the students and escorted to jail, they talked about factors such as long hours working the night shift, lack of sleep, relationship problems and personal stress as contributing to their admittedly bad decision to drink and drive.
They also spoke of the humiliation of being arrested, having to strip naked and shower in jail, wearing the orange jail prisoner clothing, the financial burden of getting money for bail and lawyers, the embarrassment of having others watch as they blow into ignition-interlock devices, and the anger and disappointment from children, parents and friends.
“This was very educational and gave us an insight on how court works and what really happens,” said senior Kehiry Trejo, 17. “You got the sense that this was a real court proceeding. You saw people being handcuffed, and you could tell they were ashamed.”
“What was most dramatic,” said senior Simone Mall, 18, “was when they were telling their stories and said they didn’t intend to do anything reckless, but somehow it just happened. The lesson for me is to think before I do something reckless, and remember a lot of things can go wrong if you drink and drive. It would affect not only me, but my family and friends, and I could take another person’s life.”