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New Mexico is about to become the first state to try a new approach in using longterm treatment in a lockup for chronic drug offenders.
Officials hope the Second Chance Center, which opens this week in the old West Side jail, is the answer to a broken system that cycles drug offenders through courts and jails.
Instead of sentencing nonviolent drug offenders to prison, judges will have the option of sentencing some to Second Chance.
Inmates will spend eight hours a day reading in a classroom. The program also features a sauna for detoxification and a healthy diet that includes vitamins and minerals.
But there is plenty of skepticism and lots of questions from judges and law enforcement, ranging from funding to whether counselors are adequately trained to possible connections to Scientology.
On the other hand, one UNM addiction expert says what the state is doing now doesn't work, so why not try Second Chance?
Second Chance Program is a private, nonprofit company. Second Chance Center is a private, for-profit corporation.
"We've had Drug Court and other programs, which have been very successful, and the judiciary has been out front on that," said Barri Roberts, director of the Metropolitan Criminal Justice Coordinating Council and criminal justice consultant for the Legislature.
"But this is the missing link — long-term treatment. I truly believe what we have here is the next step: a secure, residential treatment facility where offenders can do their time and their rehabilitation at the same time."
Roberts has been a strong advocate for Second Chance, which has hired former Chief District Judge John Brennan as a consultant.
Brennan resigned and gave up his law license after being arrested on drunken driving and drug charges in 2004.
His successor as chief judge, William Lang, said he is bothered by the fact that Second Chance uses unlicensed substance abuse professionals.
He also said program administrators have been vague in explaining the treatment model, and he's not clear on its corporate structure.
"Just because I'm not familiar with it doesn't mean it's wrong, and I don't suggest for a minute that we've figured everything out," Lang said. "But if they're asking for public money and the court's buyin, we would want, at a minimum, something that says this is not just plausible, but something that shows it has worked."
Second Chance executive director Rick Pendery acknowledged the judiciary hasn't been properly advised about the program.
"Judge Lang doesn't know enough about it to feel comfortable sending people there, and that's my fault," Pendery said. "But as judges see this operate and see the results, anybody with a negative opinion will change their mind."
Pendery also points to a letter from the state Health Department dated Feb. 7 that says the center doesn't need a state license because it is "geared towards drug and alcohol rehabilitation and will not be providing assisted daily living services to clients."
Second Chance is making a sort of debut in New Mexico. There have been two pilot programs — one in Mexico and the other in Puerto Rico — both of which showed dramatic reductions in recidivism, Pendery said.
The program is leasing the old West Side jail from the city, a 300-bed facility with room for 300 more. It's funded by a $347,000 grant from the federal Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration.
A group of legislators including Rep. Anna Crook, R-Clovis, helped pass a bill during this year's session enabling Second Chance to operate in New Mexico.
The bill allows judges to sentence offenders to a secure facility that offers long-term treatment in lieu of prison or jail.
Fifteen to 20 offenders will go to the center this week, and officials hope to have between 50 and 200 by the end of the fiscal year, Brennan said. The offenders were sentenced by judges from around the state.
Second Chance will not charge the governments that send prisoners to the program.
Pendery said the federal grant will pay for the first batch of prisoners, and the company will be seeking other state and federal money.
The company also relies on private donations.
The staff includes 17 on security and day-to-day operations and another 17 on the program end, Pendery said.
Program staff will handle the classroom portion. All staffers have been through the program.
The company has advertised for substance abuse counselors, Roberts said.
Brennan said he went through some of the program training.
"I certainly learned a lot about myself," he said. "It was very helpful for me."
It will be up to judges whether an offender is sent to prison or to the Second Chance Center.
To be eligible, offenders must be facing or have remaining on their sentence six months to a year and must have chronic substance abuse problems. The center will not accept prisoners with serious medical conditions or those who have committed violent or sex offenses.
Offenders will stay at the center from six months to a year.
While there, they go through three "modules": drug rehabilitation, education and selfrespect.
The modules include courses on literacy, communication skills and personal values, plus time in a sauna to remove toxins from the body.
The program relies heavily on vitamins and minerals — and good meals — as ways to get offenders healthy, Pendery said.
Offenders will be in the classroom about eight hours a day.
Some of the manuals used in the program are based on criminal justice research done by L. Ron Hubbard, author and founder of the Church of Scientology, Pendery said. But he stressed that the program is not based in Scientology and that staffers are prohibited from proselytizing any religion.
Second Chance also offers a re-integration program to help offenders get back on their feet.
At an Aug. 8 meeting of the Bernalillo County District Court criminal judges, Roberts and Rick Melton, head of security at Second Chance, made a presentation and took questions, apparently in hopes of getting judges to make referrals in lieu of imposing standard sentences.
"There is nothing like this," Roberts said. "It is going to be a cutting-edge model."
But there was skepticism.
Albert S. "Pat" Murdoch, presiding criminal judge, pressed Roberts for specifics on the private funders and membership of the board of directors.
"If private money is coming in," he asked, "who are you going to be beholden to?"
He said 12-step treatment programs work. "I don't see any of that," he said. "I don't understand what you're going to do."
Judge Neil Candelaria and Murdoch asked if the treatment model was associated with Scientology.
Roberts said it is not, and a letter from Albuquerque attorney Robert Desiderio, who is representing Second Chance, denies any relationship to the church.
Murdoch pressed Roberts for information on who trains counselors and an example of "the typical day for Joe Schmo."
Roberts and Melton said much of the program is selftaught.
"You sit down with a book and read chapter by chapter," Melton said. "Someone would sit down with you and make sure you fully grasp the concept."
"What happens if there's a 4th-grade reading level, or is a Spanish-only speaker?" Judge Monica Zamora asked.
Melton said there will be a literacy test at the beginning. "We'll work with them," he said.
"Who is it who trains these non-counselors?" Judge Carl Butkus asked.
"And what are their qualifications?" Judge Ross Sanchez asked.
Melton said initially the counselors will be those trained in Second Chance.
"We're looking for people who want to help other people, who are educated," Melton said.
Crook said she found out about Second Chance when she toured a pilot program in Encinitas, Mexico.
"I was just so impressed," she said. "I've had so much support from my DAs and judges who are convinced that what we have now isn't working. It's bankrupting the county. There will absolutely be referrals from Clovis."
Dr. Bill Miller, a UNM professor who specializes in substance abuse, said he has spent "considerable time" looking at the Second Chance model.
"I'd bet on it doing better than what we're doing now with drug offenders," Miller said. "But I can't say yet that it's a great program, and we should be doing it all over the United States. So, what you do then is try it out and see if it works."
He said UNM plans to do an extensive, peer-reviewed study of the program.
Bernalillo County Sheriff Darren White said in an interview he is "very, very skeptical" about the program and would prefer the criminal justice system concentrate on proven models such as Drug Court.
"I've always been in favor of treatment," White said. "But instead of spending money on this touchy-feely stuff, let's fund what we already know works."
Copyright (c) 2006 Albuquerque Journal