Drug court offers incarceration alternative

By Eric Butler: CNJ Correspondent

Lawrence Baker knew he needed help to kick his drug habit.

He found the structure and incentive he needed through the 9th Judicial Drug Court program.
“I had tried to quit on my own before, through N.A. (Narcotics Anonymous),” Baker said. “But the steady regimen of (Drug Court) is what really helps.”

So does the real threat of continued jail time.

“I knew I had to do it or I was going to prison,” he said.

Initiated by Judge Ted Hartley in November 2006, the district’s drug court includes up to 20 participants who have been given the alternative of going through the program rather than facing jail time.

That was precisely the option for Baker when he sat in the Roosevelt County jail during the holidays last year. He entered the program on Jan. 5, 2007, and became an official “graduate” of the drug court on Wednesday – part of the first graduating class of two former inmates.

“In my opinion, people who have graduated from this have done more than those in any other graduation,” Hartley said at the graduation ceremony.

Hartley was introduced to the idea of a drug court four years ago when he went to training in Nevada after being elected to be a district judge.

Those selected to be in the drug court program typically have black marks on their criminal record in the vein of “multiple DWIs, multiple drug possessions,” according to Hartley.

“They are all felony problems, subject to incarceration at the county or the state,” Hartley said. “They’ll work with their attorneys to determine whether there’s some kind of drug or alcohol addiction involved.

“What we’re trying to do is find someone who is addicted or on the verge of being addicted. We try to rescue them from going further, to robbery or shooting somebody or killing somebody in a car wreck.”

Upon entering the program, participants are subject to visits from court workers at random times. In addition, participants have a rigorous schedule of reporting to the judges and attending a variety of other classes.

Baker, 27, who said he was using ecstasy and LSD on a daily basis prior to being arrested, believes the constant attention helped him overcome his addictions.

“In the beginning, it was three or four (visits) a week. Then, as you advance through phases, they come to see you a little bit less,” Baker said. “From phase to phase, it slacks off a little, but your end of the bargain steps up. You’re more responsible for the meetings you attend.”

Baker said he is attending Eastern New Mexico University in Portales as a communications major and is carrying a 16-hour classload.

“Some of them you get to know better than others, because you have some sort of rapport,” said Michelle Reeves, a staff attorney for the court who wrote the initial grants to enable training for the drug court.

“I’ve been really thrilled to have a feel for where these people have come from and then to see them get here and see how much they’ve changed,” Reeves said. “It’s quite amazing.”

While Baker’s charges have been dismissed and he carries on the activities of a normal college student, he also knows that his particular kind of past is not far removed from his present. Temptation to use drugs again is something that Baker still has to fight.

“It’s not a day-to-day battle, but if I’m in a sticky situation, then I usually have to call somebody,” he said. “I still can’t say no on my own.”