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Bill Would Offer Treatment to Some Drug Offenders

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — Measure passed by the Legislature awaits action by the governor

Allowing the option of sending some people charged with drug possession to treatment rather than jail will benefit the state by reducing court costs and repeat offenders, a state lawmaker said.

Rep. Antonio “Moe” Maestas, D-Albuquerque, estimates the Substance Abuse and Crime Prevention Act he sponsored in the House will remove 2,000 to 3,000 cases a year from New Mexico’s courts, saving $18 million.

If cases can be diverted away from the courts, “that’s more time and energy the district attorney and the court could devote to violent criminals,” said Maestas, who was a prosecutor for five years.

In addition, treatment “deals with the crux of the crime, which is the addiction itself. So instead of penalizing the possession, you attack the addiction,” he said.

Sen. Richard Martinez, a former magistrate who sponsored the measure in the Senate, said treatment, not jail time, will reduce the number of repeat offenders.

“We’ve got lives here at stake,” said Martinez, D-Espanola. “It’s more important to treat them than incarcerate them.”

It also makes economic sense, Martinez said. Treatment is less expensive than incarceration, and offenders, rather than the state, will pay for its cost, he said.

The measure would go into effect July 1 if signed into law by Gov. Susana Martinez.

Sen. Martinez said he hopes the governor will sign it but expressed doubts because “she has a prosecutor’s mentality.” The governor was district attorney in Las Cruces before winning the gubernatorial election last year.

Her spokesman, Scott Darnell, said the bill had not yet reached her desk but would be reviewed closely.

The measure calls for a hearing to determine if the program would be a viable option for a drug possession defendant. Treatment could last no more than 18 months and could include court-ordered monitoring. The case would be dismissed if a defendant successfully completes treatment. If not, the case could move ahead in court.

“We know that incarceration without treatment does not prevent future crimes,” Maestas said. “If a drug addict is able to overcome their addiction, they not only won’t commit drug crimes anymore, but also not commit property crimes and other crimes associated with their drug addiction.”

Critics complained the program would mean a catch-and-release program for offenders.

But Maestas argued the state has nothing to lose.

Offenders who aren’t serious about treatment or who violate a judge’s order go back to court, “and state is in no worse position to prosecute the case,” Maestas said.

And, offenders who complete treatment “don’t have the scarlet letter of a felony,” he said.

The same measure died in the 2010 session when time ran out, but this year it passed the Senate on a 21-3 vote. It passed the House 41-26 Friday night, hours before the session’s Saturday noon adjournment.

 

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