By Clarence Plank: PNT staff writer
The Alternative Sentencing Programs and Educational Networks of New Mexico (ASPEN) has been giving people convicted of crimes the chance to turn around their lives for the last seven years.
District, magistrate and municipal judges in Roosevelt County often sentence offenders to attend the program in conjunction with paying court costs and often instead of jail time. It costs taxpayers $250 dollars to arrest, book and transport a person to jail, with an added $50 for daily upkeep of the person, according to the ASPEN Web site.
The program has an estimated 18 percent recidivism rate, said founder Kevin Boyd of Albuquerque. As an educational program, rather than a counseling or treatment program, ASPEN isn’t required to track those numbers, he said.
“We are not required, but we keep our own information,” Boyd said. “It may be right down the line accurate; it may not be because the courts have the final option of sending them or not.”
The class is 6 1/2 hours long without the breaks, and sessions are held in Clovis and Portales. The people in the class range from someone being charged with serving a minor or DWI to drug violations and driving on a suspended license.
Retired state police officers Boyd and K.C. Rogers of Roswell developed the ASPEN program in 2001, and since then 20,000 offenders have been sentenced to the program, according to the ASPEN Web site.
“What we do is we lay it on the line,” Rogers said. “We don’t sit around holding hands singing Kumbaya, pat them on the back and say ‘it is going to be okay.’ We basically tell them they need to pull their head out of their butts, or they’re going to end up spending a lot of time in a system that really doesn’t care about you, and that is kind of our philosophy.”
Boyd said the program’s premise is convincing people not to break the law. It provides a basic introduction to laws, particularly those the people in the class broke, as well as information about drugs and alcohol and self-help advice.
The class also explains such things as dismissals and deferrals, and helps students understand their felony records are public information.
Rogers said he had a lot of people say they’d received information they didn’t know before.
“We’re not a stand-alone program because stand-alone programs have a low success rate,” Boyd said.
In the program, instructors ask the students what brought them to the class.
“Everyone in the program gets an answer to their questions,” Boyd said. “We get good reviews on our evaluations from the people in the class because they evaluate us as a program and the instructors.”
This is the second time around for Dion Hightower, who was picked up for possession of drug paraphernalia.
“It kind a puts a lot things in perspective, a lot of the situations you find yourself in,” Hightower said. “I’ve dealt with a lot of drugs dealers. Even without the class I’ve been trying to cut out associating with people who are into drugs, and I definitely see why. This stuff will screw you up, hanging around with bad people, doing drugs. It is not worth it.”
Student Nathan Montano was charged with running away from police.
“It made me think about what I was doing when it came to drinking and driving,” he said.
Montano found the class informative, and he said the consequences of breaking the law the program teaches could actually happen.
“It could be you, it could be me, it happens,” he said.
Rogers and David Urban, another retired state police officer, teach the classes on the eastern side of the state. Both men are passionate about what they teach due to their experience as highway patrolmen.
The instructors give information and show photos that may be unsettling. For instance, Rogers and Urban showed pictures of methamphetamine addicts and the results of their addiction over time.
“Being former cops, we tell it as we see it,” Rogers said. “We give the criminal a chance to see things through a cop’s eyes, and that is very impacting, and they understand why they need to make better decisions to stay out of trouble.”