There’s about a five-mile stretch of blacktop between the southern entrance to Taos Pueblo and Taos County Magistrate Court. Some might see that as just a stone’s throw away. But for tribal members seeking court-mandated treatment for alcohol or substance abuse, the road can seem much longer.
Last week, a historic memorandum of understanding (MOU) was signed by representatives of Taos Pueblo Tribal Court and Taos County Magistrate Court. It outlined a new relationship between the two judicial systems — a way to shorten the distance for tribal probationers seeking successful recovery from addiction and a transition back to society.
Judge T. David Eisenberg of Taos Pueblo Tribal Court wrote and signed the agreement with Magistrate Court Chief Judge Ernest Ortega. “The MOU approved by the New Mexico Administrative Office of the Courts establishes a process by which the Tribal Court and the Magistrate Court can collaborate in the oversight of tribal members under Magistrate Court supervision,” said Eisenberg. “The MOU facilitates Taos Pueblo community-based supervision by allowing tribal member state probationers to participate in the Taos Pueblo ‘Wellness Recovery Program’ and the Taos Pueblo Wellness Court, thereby enhancing successful completion of probation, rehabilitation and community safety,” he said.
The sharing of judicial oversight and responsibility in an agreement of this sort is historic – the first of its kind, in fact, in New Mexico, according to Judge Bruce Fox, chairman of the state’s Tribal State Judicial Consortium.
Taking the entire U.S. into consideration, it is believed to be one of just a few.
“Minnesota began a joint jurisdiction Wellness Court in Cass County in 2006, but we couldn’t find any other jurisdiction that had attempted this,” said Deborah W. Smith, a senior analyst at the National Center for State Courts. “They signed a Joint Powers Agreement with the Leech Lake Tribal Council. Since that time, similar programs have been replicated in another Minnesota community, in California (El Dorado County) and in Alaska (city of Kenai).”
Smith added that a 2016 manual has been created to assist other jurisdictions interested in replicating the model, titled “Joint Jurisdiction Courts: A Manual for Developing Tribal, Local, State & Federal Justice Collaborations.”
For New Mexico and its 19 pueblos and three reservations, the example set by the agreement in Taos takes on a special significance.
Ortega and Judge Jeff Shannon of Magistrate Court have seen numerous probationers go through New Mexico’s traditional system. Both agreed that probationers ordered to treatment as a condition of release don’t always have many options — and the further removed those options are from one’s culture — the more challenging it can be for a client to experience a successful recovery.
In state as diverse as New Mexico, it’s a common problem.
“When you’re going through treatment and you’re not comfortable with the environment you’re going through treatment in, it’s going to be very difficult,” Shannon said. “You’re exposing your guts to the treatment team. You’re exposing yourself and leaving yourself open in ways few people ever have to. It’s an invasive, personal thing.”
Traditionally, offenders are placed on probation and referred to the Taos County probation office, which then assigns them to their preferred treatment center — one of five primary providers. They include Rio Grande Alcoholism Treatment Program, Tri-County Community Services, Eight Northern Pueblos Council, Community Against Violence and a Taos men’s program.
Ortega explained that an informal agreement has granted tribal members the option to utilize the Taos Pueblo Wellness Recovery Program in the past, upon request. “We’re glad to send them wherever they want to go if they think that’s better for them. We’ve done it before,” he said.
But the agreement makes the treatment option as “legal and binding as it can possibly be,” enhancing probationers chances of success — said the treatment team at the Wellness Recovery Program, Eisenberg, Ortega and Shannon. Which all say is the “ultimate goal.”