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Specialty courts take messages to public

Attorney Nathan Pederson gets info from Loretta Sanchez at the Community Veterans Court table during Metro Court’s specialty courts event. (Jim Thompson/Albuquerque Journal)

Attorney Nathan Pederson gets info from Loretta Sanchez at the Community Veterans Court table during Metro Court’s specialty courts event. (Jim Thompson/Albuquerque Journal)

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — Like vendors at a convention, judges at the Bernalillo County Metropolitan Court lined up at booths Friday under the courthouse rotunda to promote their specialty court to the public and attorneys who might help their clients by getting them into one.

With the addition of three new specialty courts, including what is believed to be the second in the nation devoted to animal abuse, Metro Court now has 10, all aimed at specific demographic groups.

And all are focused on getting people who have been charged with an offense into a treatment program of some kind that will ultimately lead to healthier lives and families, and to dismissal of charges with successful completion.

Ed Benavidez, the presiding judge in the DWI Recovery Court, one of the oldest programs, said the recidivism rate is 5.5 percent for offenders who successfully complete the 14 months of requirements. He said many participants also earn high school equivalency degrees or other certificates by the time they’re done.

Maria Dominguez presides over the Urban Native American Healing to Wellness Court, one of whose graduates spoke to an assembly of more than 100 people at the open house and educational session.

Jennifer Jones Peña, a single mom with three “kiddos,” said she was a functional alcoholic when she began in the court and is now about to complete an accounting program. She agreed with an observation that trauma, especially childhood trauma, is often behind substance abuse as people try to forget terrible events, and recovery “starts with people who want to change.

“My life has been given back to me,” she said.

Between 4,000 and 5,000 people go through Metro Court daily, Chief Judge Henry Alaniz said, and the court even has night shift workers doing background work for the judges. Metro is “the people’s court,” he said, where most citizens have their first interaction with the legal system.

“If judges can make a difference, it has a ripple effect,” Alaniz said. “It’s an alternative, and without alternatives, we have to send them 30 miles away to MDC (Metropolitan Detention Center).”

Judge John Duran’s Homeless Court just received a $190,000 grant from the City of Albuquerque to help individuals with no permanent address resolve their misdemeanor charges. Court has been conducted monthly at St. Martin’s Hospitality Center, a few blocks away.

The grant will allow the program to move to different quarters and relieve the strain on St. Martin’s as well as fund a new staff position to monitor individuals “so they don’t fall off the radar” and to buy more bed space, he said.

The new courts are Community Veterans Court, and the Behavioral Health DWI Court and the Pre-Adjudication Animal Welfare (P.A.W.) Court, which presiding Judge Rosemary Cosgrove-Aguilar boasted “has the cutest name ever.” The 16-week program targets topics such as links between animal abuse and domestic violence, social conditions encouraging animal abuse and anger control.

Community Veterans Court, headed by Judge Sandra Engel, draws on federal and state resources for mental health and substance abuse treatment, drug screening and more – and it’s available even to vets who have a less than honorable discharge.