ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. (AP) – Inside the busiest courthouse in New Mexico, Arnett Tafoya stood in the same courtroom where he had appeared numerous times after being charged last year with drunken driving.
This time, things were different. There was cake on a table, and Bernalillo County Judge Maria Dominguez praised Tafoya for completing a regimented, court-run treatment program called the Urban Native American Healing to Wellness Court – the only fully state-run program for Native Americans of its kind in the country.
Tafoya said the program has helped him avoid jail time as he worked hard to turn his life around. At his graduation earlier this month, dozens of program participants listened as he recounted his struggle.
“When I first started, it was so tough. I thought I wanted to give up and wanted to just do jail time,” he said. “But I had a different connection with my peers. ... That helped me to open up.”
The program had been suspended in 2009 then revived in March, with participants expected to appear once or twice a month before a judge, submit to random drug tests and check in regularly with a probation officer.
Similar programs exist in Minnesota, Alaska, Montana and California. But such efforts typically are overseen, at least in part, by tribes in rural areas. Programs are harder to find in cities such as Albuquerque, where about 5 percent of the 500,000 residents are Native American.
Participants in the Metropolitan Court program can complete court-mandated community service hours in the Laguna, Acoma and Santo Domingo pueblos near Albuquerque, and sometimes on their own reservations if their tribe is based farther away.
They also are encouraged to be active in cultural events such as ceremonies and feast days, while participating in group therapy sessions that take the form of “talking circles” – a traditional approach to problem solving among some tribes. In the talking circle, participants are allowed to speak one at a time without interruption.
“It's inspired people to get involved with their communities,” Dominguez said. “And they receive positive reinforcement, something our clients especially haven't gotten a lot of in their lives.”
Tafoya is one of about 100 graduates from the program, organizers said. Close to 20 other people are aiming to complete the program within the coming year.
“We've had people in this program who have said they are sober for a year for the first time since the age of 14,” Dominguez said. “It's not about us catching you doing something wrong. It's about us helping you.”