Alcoholism in Indian country is not a new issue, but for one of the biggest cities in the country a more traditional approach in handling repeat offenders of DWI is working within the urban Native American community.
Albuquerque, New Mexico operates the only state-funded drug court in the country that specifically serves Native Americans. Originally beginning in 2004, the program made its return in March of this year after being defunded in 2009. It is known as the Urban Native American Drug Court but in these early stages of its resurgence it is only serving Natives who have been convicted of their second or third DWI.
“Natives are over-represented in the courts here in Albuquerque,” said Karen Watson, who serves as Probation Officer for the city’s Native drug court. “We had the program in the past and people were so happy there was a Native court because it’s different than the regular drug court. Now that we’ve started again we’ve had a really positive response.”
What makes this Native DWI program unique is that the court, led by Metro Court Judge Maria Dominguez, encourages participants to reconnect with their tribal traditions and ceremonies. The court favors a healing approach as well as spiritual and physical recovery rather than punitive practices.
“I know that the participants love it,” added Dominguez.
Participants are in the DWI program for an average of about 15 months, which includes community service, regular court appearances, talking circles, culturally sensitive therapy, AA meetings, random drug and alcohol testing, and they have to be employed or enrolled in an educational program. The program utilizes intensive treatment and close supervision rather than jail time.
“It’s designed for Native Americans who have been convicted of a second or third DWI. The idea is to basically help them heal so they can be functional, actually more than functional, but productive members of society,” said Daniel Apodaca, the only Public Defender for the Native American Drug Court team.
“What we do is instead of sending them to jail we have them go through counseling and therapy. It’s an intense outpatient program. It’s designed to find underlying issues our clients might have,” Apodaca said. “Our goal is to have our clients actively think about sobriety. Alcoholism is an issue they have to face on a daily basis. We want them to constantly think about being sober and being in their right state of mind.”
“You don’t have to be a registered member of a tribe, or have a specific amount bloodline or Certificate of Indian Blood. But actually 100 percent of the people I have in the Native American Drug Court are members of the Navajo Nation or members of a Pueblo,” Dominguez said. “We don’t want our clients to be in and out of jail and in and out of the judicial system. We encourage them to try to reconnect with their local community and traditions. They can do their community service where they live.”
Dominguez, who also serves on the state-tribal court consortium, explained that drug courts have been in existence all across the nation for more than 25 years and are proven more effective than any other form of probation or incarceration. The recidivism rate for Albuquerque’s drug court graduates over the years is 5.5 percent.
“If you send someone to prison or just standard probation, they don’t get this type of treatment – and without that treatment it’s just going to be a revolving door,” said Apodaca, who is officially employed by the City of Albuquerque’s Public Defender’s Office. “That’s how you get people committing the same crimes. We want to see our graduates go on to have productive lives and hopefully not come back into the court system. That’s our goal.”
“I do believe we are the first and only program like this in the country. I know states have wellness courts that work with tribal courts, but as far as I know this is the only fully state-funded court that is directed specifically for Natives,” said Karen Watson, who is an enrolled citizen of the Three Affiliated Tribes of Mandan, Hidatsa and Arikara Nation in New Town, North Dakota. She is Arikara, Yankton Lakota and Navajo.
“Everyone has their challenges – trauma and generational trauma and one thing after another. We know how it is to be Native and the challenges you have to overcome. When you get involved in the criminal justice system it’s an extra burden on you,” Watson continued. “Then when you have somebody who works so hard to complete this program and there’s one more Native person out there who is sober and they’re going to live a good life. That’s why I do it.”
“The most important thing to me is that participants are making changes in their life. To me, I don’t just pick people who I know are going to succeed. I want to help people who are high risk, high need. If the recidivism rate is higher than the standard drug court, as long as we’ve tried our best and exercised every tool we have for them. That’s fine with me. I’m not 100 percent driven by the recidivism rate, because I want to take higher-risk and higher-needs people,” Dominguez said.
“It’s very rewarding. You have a lot of hope for them and their life. We’ve had graduates already. It’s amazing to see the change in them and the change in their lifestyle. We just had a recent graduate who is starting an alumni association and we’re also planning an aftercare program so they can continue this throughout their life,” Dominguez said.
“We want our participants to reconnect with their home community, and Judge Dominguez is our biggest advocate,” Watson said. “She encourages them to go back to their traditional ceremonies, to go back to their tribal communities in a good way so that people see them sober and productive.”
It’s a voluntary program, Watson does have some say in who is selected for the program but ultimately it’s the judge. She just screens them to let the judge know if they are eligible or not.
“We look at violations differently. We’re not trying to put everyone in jail because they have a violation,” Watson said. “In the past it’s been more punitive, but now it’s more treatment-oriented. The participants pay a portion of their treatment. So we have buy-in from them. The court pays for 85 percent or more for their treatment. But they have a small co-payment that they pay, so they are also financially invested in their sobriety.”
According to Dominguez, “You’re able to see the change and you know that you’ve done something good, not only for that person but for the community as a whole.