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Competency diversion pilot program announced

Peter Goodman is a commentator based in Las Cruces, New Mexico.
Courtesy photo.
Peter Goodman is a commentator based in Las Cruces, New Mexico.

Commentary:

The Competency Diversion Program (“CDP,” below) is qualified good news.

Here, and in most of the country, there’s a crisis involving crimes, mostly misdemeanors, committed by the mentally ill. Many are homeless. Citizens rage that someone gets arrested then repeats the crime days or weeks later.

A key hole in the system is that courts can’t constitutionally try a defendant who can’t follow the proceedings and help his defense lawyer. We’re each entitled to a fair trial. That precludes trying a person whose severely mentally ill. Currently, a judge can only send that person to Las Vegas to confirm mental incompetency (no treatment involved), then receive the person back. Courts can’t just toss someone in jail or an asylum without finding extreme danger. Therefore, when I served as an alternate municipal judge, I had no treatment option, couldn’t jail folks, and had to let them go. Story, who has made addressing competency a high priority, has released data showing that in 2023, just four people had a total of 576 cases in Las Cruces Municipal Court dismissed following this pattern.

This is the sorry intersection of Criminal Justice Street and Mental Health Avenue.

Story, judges, and citizens have been hoping to repair that intersection by making treatment available to nonviolent defendants as early as possible. After NewMexico Legislature bills regarding competency died during the regular session, Governor Lujan-Grisham has called a special session on public safety, including competency, to start July 18. The proposal on competency would provide for diverting mentally incompetent defendants to treatment programs in various circumstances.

CDP does that. Assuming a defendant has a misdemeanor charge, but no felony, and mental health appears a factor, s/he’s screened by a scientific process. If mentally incompetent, s/he is offered treatment and other assistance right off. Prosecutor, defendant, defense counsel, and court discuss it.

Officials can’t force it on anyone – which would likely fail anyway. But some, whether hoping to kick fentanyl addiction or to recover something approximating sanity, will grab the chance. Then the system [in the person of a “forensic navigator”] introduces defendant to La Clinica Familia. An agreed-upon 20-day to six-month course of treatment follows. Successful completion (assuming no further crimes!) means dismissal of charges.

It won’t work for everyone. Some folks want no part of anything, don’t trust authorities, or aren’t sufficiently together to maintain contact. Some will try and fail. Changing ourselves is hard work. But offering this early lifeline is a boon to defendants and the rest of us. Sure, some citizens will say, “They’re a plague. Jail ‘em all.” But even many who’ve felt that way now understand that we can’t do that in this country.

CDP is new. Last Friday a pilot program started in or county, a shakedown cruise to determine how everything works. The program was developed by a New Mexico Supreme Court Commission over many months of hard work. Key figures included Justice Briana Zamora and Magistrate Judge Alex Rossario. La Clinica and Doña Ana County Health and Human Services Director Jamie Michaels will also be integral to success.

Success – measured by statistics, not emotions – would lead to extending the program to other judicial districts, and possibly including defendants accused of non-violent felonies. The Administrative Office of the Courts is keeping close statistical track of events, creating a data bank that could help in refining the program.

And, as Justice Zamora points out, this is just the first step.

Peter Goodman's opinions are his own and do not necessarily reflect the views of KRWG Public Media or NMSU.