Transcript: Albuquerque Metro Urban Healing to Wellness Court

Precious Benally (PB): Hello, I’m Precious Benally, Senior Associate for the Tribal Justice Exchange with the Center for Court Innovation. In this podcast, we are highlighting Bernalillo County Area Court’s Urban Healing to Wellness Court located in Albuquerque, New Mexico. We are speaking with Judge Maria Dominguez, a judge at the Bernalillo Metropolitan Court, who also runs the Urban Healing to Wellness Court. Judge Dominguez, thank you for taking the time to talk with me today.

To begin, can you tell us about your Healing to Wellness Court and who you serve?

J. Maria Dominguez (MD): Our Healing to Wellness Court is specifically for Native Americans those that self-identify as being Native American ... And really are trying to focus on culturally competent treatment as well as building comradery. And also having a sense of ... spirituality in recovery… And basically it's a drug court program but we also incorporate healing to wellness guidelines as well.

Obviously we're in a metropolitan area. We're surrounded by tribal lands. So we have ... a variety of different tribal members, so the challenge is basically trying to find underlying culturally competent treatment. But every individual that joins our court must be self-identified as a Native American and so they come into the court already wanting culturally competent treatment and they chose to be in our court. In our track.

PB: So, do you take any Native person who wants to be in the Healing to Wellness Court?

MD: Our court is specific, is a DWI court, and really our aim is to help high needs, high risk individuals. Actually we just started accepting first offenders if they've chosen to comply with all of the requirements because most certainly we don't want to over-supervise anybody. But there are participants that choose to come into Healing to Wellness Court as a first offense because they really feel that they need the help.

PB: So, can you walk me through the case flow process? What happens when you have an individual who wants to participate in the Healing to Wellness court?

MD: They will enter into a plea agreement and complete the program prior to sentence. And then they're sentenced upon commencement. So once they've been referred by plea either through my court or any of the other 19 Criminal Judges that are in this county. They'll be referred over for a pre-sentence report, and then a recommendation will go back to the assigned judge as to whether or not they're appropriate to transfer over to our Healing to Wellness Court. And if they're appropriate and they choose to participate, again, we have an option where they can participate in regular recovery court or our general DWI court. If they choose to participate in Healing to Wellness, then we'll get started with them immediately.

PB: Do you accept offenders with felony charges?

MD: No felonies.

PB: Okay, so since you don’t take felonies, do you find that are challenges in getting participants to comply with the program requirements due to a lack of legal leverage?

MD: I know it’s a very popular belief that you need a big hammer to run an effective drug court but that's not what I've found. I feel if the commitment is there from the participant ... if they're really willing to put in the time and the work, and they're committed, the need and the desire is there. They just want the assistance. So if you can tap into that, rather than, “Well I can just go to jail for a short period of time and be done with it,” you know, they won't choose to come into our program. So the participants that we've had, they've chosen to come in and accept the fact, and accept the help, and accept the expanded jurisdiction. And you know and at this point sometimes we have to actually push them along to commencement.

PB: Okay, let’s switch gears now and talk about incorporating culture and tradition into the program. You mentioned that participants come from a number of different tribal nations. How do you develop culturally-relevant treatment without favoring one tribe over another?

MD: The challenge of incorporating culturally competent treatment, or culture, into the wellness program is first off you know we're dealing with different tribes and Pueblos so there's some ... things that are a little different with each. But what we've tried to do, and what I think that we've been successful ... some underlying things that we do is the talking circle, the treatment provider provides that. We're working with a group here in town first nations that has their own wellness court program. They have a traditions class, and it's all traditions and they talk about traditions they have in common. And try to form a basis of support for one another, which is really nice.

In addition to that they also have sweat lodges that they're eligible to do if they wish to. We currently have the peace making program that's part of the Navajo Nation; however, many of our Pueblo Indians are interested and have participated because they have heard about it and would really like to know the teachings and the lessons. And this is a great opportunity for them to learn so they've taken full advantage of that portion as well which is not mandatory. They can bring in their family as well, and we try to incorporate the family. We also had family events where we can sit down and discuss the program. And, you know, just try to really use culture as a basis of sobriety.

PB: What advice would you give to another jurisdiction that is interested in developing an Urban Healing to Wellness Court?

MD: Anybody thinking of starting an Urban Healing to Wellness Court, first of all, I would suggest really doing ... being familiar with Tribal Healing to Wellness Courts and the standards. And receive training prior to commencing the court. Also need to know and be willing to go above and beyond and be extremely committed to outreach to the community. And the bottom line, though, is if you really care and you are really passionate about trying to solve a problem, just be unwavering about it. And follow through with that commitment and basically don't let bureaucracy or anybody else stand in the way of your vision for helping the community.

PB: That’s great advice. This is a unique program that provides much needed services to a large population of Native people. With a number of major cities in the country with large populations of Native people, this program serves as a model for those jurisdictions who are looking to provide an alternative to the traditional western approach. Thank you for taking the time to speak with me today.

I’m Precious Benally with the Center for Court Innovation. Thank you for listening.