More time on treatment, less money for prisons

February 4, 2019

Here I go again, mixing music and politics. But a couple of stories I covered last week made me think of this song by the late Merle Haggard, in my book his greatest from his latter years, “Wishing All These Old Things Were New.”

Sang the mighty Merle: “Watching while some young men go to jail / And they show it all on TV just to see somebody fail. …”

Haggard, who spent at least part of the ’80s in a cocaine haze, was singing from the perspective of a drug addict. (“Watching while some old friends do a line / Holding back the want-to in my own addicted mind,” he sings in the first verse of the song.)

The song played loudly on the jukebox of my mind as I drove away from the courthouse Wednesday after a sentencing hearing for former Public Regulation Commissioner Jerome Block Jr., who lost his spot on the commission eight years ago because of drug-fueled crimes.

Block was in court this week because all these years later, drugs again had gotten him in trouble. This time, it was a burglary in a time-share apartment complex where he was working as a security guard and handyman. He broke into an apartment while a visiting couple was sleeping and stole an expensive watch and other items.

Haggard’s song also came to me at the Roundhouse the day before, while covering a news conference about Senate Bill 408, legislation that would make mere possession of drugs a misdemeanor rather than a felony.

One of the sponsors, Sen. Jacob Candelaria, D-Albuquerque, said New Mexico needs to stop treating drug addiction as a law enforcement problem. “Addiction is a medical problem,” he said. He argued that a felony conviction amounts to “civil death,” asking, “How do you pick yourself up by your bootstraps if someone’s taken your boots?”

Co-sponsor Rep. Andrea Romero, D-Santa Fe, referring to drug addicts, said at the news conference, “The evidence shows that more punitive criminal justice responses, such as felony convictions, are not effective.”

That’s pretty similar to something Chief Deputy District Attorney Johnn Osborne wrote in his sentencing memo for Block: “While the state does not condone [Block’s] behavior, imprisonment of this defendant would have a negligible effect on the general population. The rest of the population will continue to experiment with opioids regardless of the sentence this defendant receives. … Incarceration of non-violent people who have substance abuse disorder has proved to be ineffective and expensive.”

The burglary charge resulted in a sentence of three years of supervised probation for Block. State District Judge Mary Marlowe Sommer warned him if he violates the terms of his probation, he could face prison time.

Before I get my apples and oranges mixed up in this peach cobbler of a column, SB 408 wouldn’t apply to Block. His charges, even the ones that were dropped in his plea deal, didn’t include simple possession of a controlled substance. Neither did those felonies he pleaded to in 2011, charges that included abusing his state credit card, stealing a car and embezzling public campaign funds when he ran for the office in 2008.

Also, Block was a public official, and virtually everyone says that public officials should be held to higher standards than the rest of us peons. Politicians say that all the time — at least until they are caught.

That’s surely the main reason that Block hasn’t received much public sympathy for his plight.

Even people I know who think the war on drugs has been a miserable waste and even those who are vocal supporters of “criminal justice reform” have no empathy for Block. Instead, they say, he should be locked up and be made an example.

But I don’t feel that way about Block — or those nameless drug users who aren’t elected officials or come from prominent political families who would catch a break from SB 408. Count me among the ones who think the state should spend less money on prisons and more on drug abuse treatment. And I hope I never see Jerome Block Jr. in a courtroom again.

Maybe the tough old bird that was Merle Haggard turned me into an old softy.