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‘It didn’t give up on me’

Veterans’ treatment court wins gold certification


On Monday, courtroom 7 at the 3rd Judicial District court in Las Cruces was packed. The gallery was full, people stood at the sides of the room, and an additional row of chairs accommodated staff members. The jury seats were full, as well, but not with jurors. There was no trial or criminal proceeding this afternoon.



On the wall to the right of District Judge James T. Martin’s bench sat a striking oil painting of a phoenix-like figure spreading its wings over a smoldering fire.






This was a hearing of the Doña Ana County Veterans Treatment Court. The program, which debuted in 2018, locates veterans and active service members who have fallen into the criminal justice system and provides a rigid, even invasive structure assisting them with substance abuse treatment, behavioral health counseling and mental health treatment as needed, and other services on an individual case management basis.

The rigorous structure includes constant surveillance to check compliance with curfews and attendance at work and/or class, supervised urine tests to make sure participants stay clean and sober and regular appearances in the courtroom to account for progress as well as lapses before Judge Martin.

The participants who testified Monday, in front of an unusually full courtroom, had mostly good news to report and some moved up levels in the treatment courts’ tiered system, receiving applause and congratulations from the judge. There were testimonies of improved family relations, lengthening periods of sobriety, job interviews and school.

Even these testimonies, however, revealed glimpses of the struggles involved in completing the program and staying on track while breaking the chains of addiction to meth, heroin, alcohol and other substances. One man sought permission to travel to El Paso to visit an ailing brother in the hospital. Martin agreed, provided a staff member accompany him in case the stress of the family emergency threatened a relapse. Other participants spoke of challenges in balancing work and classes and finding living arrangements that support their sobriety. Appointments with program staff were rescheduled to accommodate incidental needs; legal questions, such as permissible contact with a minor who was also a relative, were assigned to staff members for research. Life is complicated and unpredictable, and these individuals rely on a team to help maintain a steady course and keep leaving the courtroom through the doors facing Picacho Avenue.

Michael Hubbard, a 57-year-old Navy veteran with grown children, graduated from the program on Monday, joining a slowly growing contingent of alumni that help support those still working through the phases and applying Moral Recognition Therapy that provides the process with its spine. For Hubbard, the process took more than 16 months; for others, the road may be longer.

Hubbard said he was located by a veterans’ liaison after he landed in jail, falling into a feedback loop of meth addiction, aggravated by post-traumatic stress disorder and depression, that had alienated him from his family and landed him with criminal charges. The initial stages of detoxification, treatment and behavioral therapy were hard; but as difficult as the program seemed to him, he said, “It didn’t give up on me.”

After the proceedings, Martin and his staff celebrated a difficult achievement for the program itself. Last August, the state Administrative Office of the Courts’ Department for Therapeutic Justice awarded the county’s program with its gold certification, meaning it had met all mandatory standards and nearly 98 percent of recommended standards for treatment courts, but the celebration had been delayed until this week.

Among those assembled in the gallery, with family members of the participants, community leaders and legal professionals, were Las Cruces Mayor Eric Enriquez, seated next to County Manager Fernando Macias (a former district judge). City Councilor Becky Corran was seated in the back row.

The striking painting overlooking the event was donated to the court by the artist, who is also among the veterans who graduated from the program, Magdalena Escoto. She was in the courtroom Monday to congratulate the participants and share her own story of working through the program.

Martin, a veteran himself, said he was initially skeptical of the treatment court approach, attributing it partially to his background as a federal prosecutor. Nearly six years since the first clients were welcomed to the new program, he said, “I stand here today a complete convert to the success of treatment court.”

A theme he returned to repeatedly in his address to the gallery was that basic training taught people how to be soldiers, and the treatment court was providing another vital service: Teaching soldiers how to be healthy civilians.

The New Mexico treatment court standards are set by the state Supreme Court, and the certification followed a three-month process of scrutiny of the program’s policies and procedures, team member reviews and surveys, and any gaps between the program’s performance and those standards, according to the 3rd Judicial District. The “gold” threshold requires all mandatory standards be met along with 95 percent of recommended standards; and only a few treatment courts in the state have made it. According to the AOC, besides the county’s veterans treatment court, other programs that have earned gold are the Doña Ana County Magistrate Court’s DWI treatment court; a young adult treatment court program in Albuquerque; and adult treatment courts in Deming and Taos.

Veterans, treatment court, Dona Ana County Veterans Treatment Court