Prison, not rehab, is place for violent felons

Staci Matlock
Posted 11/1/19

IIs a drug rehabilitation center really the best place for people convicted of violent felonies? Or is prison the better option for both rehabilitation programs and keeping the public safe?

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Prison, not rehab, is place for violent felons


Is a drug rehabilitation center really the best place for people convicted of violent felonies? Or is prison the better option for both rehabilitation programs and keeping the public safe?

Sending felons who've committed violent acts off to rehabilitation centers from which they can easily walk away doesn't help them and does endanger the public. Two Taos cases this year are enough to raise questions about how justice is meted out and leaves victims wondering if there is any.

In one case, Martin Rivera, 23, was charged with the Oct. 19 murder of a man in Taos. This is the same Rivera who agreed to a plea deal earlier this year and was sentenced to a drug treatment center. That agreement stemmed from incidents in 2017, when Rivera was charged with stabbing a man outside Smith's grocery store in Taos and robbing two people after threatening them with a gun. Rivera completed a 90-day sentence at a drug treatment facility in Gallup but within a couple of months was charged with committing another violent crime.

Another man, Raphael Orozco, 25, pleaded guilty in mid-October to battering a health care worker at Holy Cross Hospital, a female jailer and another detainee in three separate incidents. As part of the agreement, he was sentenced to compete a two-year program at the drug treatment facility Delancey Street Foundation in Española. He walked away from the facility less than a week later, and as of Oct. 30, was still on the lam. Orozco already had three prior felony convictions, including battery upon a peace officer. In the case tied to the plea deal, he had also faced charges of hitting his wife and newborn in a room at Holy Cross Medical Center.

Rivera and Orozco apparently know each other. Video from the Taos County jail allegedly shows the two speaking to each other before jumping another detainee outside his cell and beating him unconscious.

So how is it these two men keep walking away with no jail time after committing violence against others?

On its face, it would seem the prosecutors and the judge weren't doing their jobs.

Still, the legal system is complicated. Prosecutors have to weigh the evidence they have in a case against what they think a jury or a judge might rule. They take calculated risks, a gamble if you will, on how a trial will play out. Losing a trial can net an offender no punishment at all, and victims receive none of the justice our system can produce when it functions properly. Plea deals can provide a bit of both, which perhaps explains why a majority of cases are resolved through them and not trials. But they also involve risks, such as when a felon walks away from rehab and hopefully won't beat, stab or harm someone else before he ends up back in jail.

In the case of Orozco, under the terms of the plea deal, if he walked away from rehab, he would automatically be sentenced to 14 years in prison when caught. So now the district attorney's office is banking on law enforcement scooping Orozco up - yet again - only this time with the sentence already decided. But that lengthy prison sentence also gives Orozco, now on the run, little to lose. Time will tell if the DA's gambit pays off.

It's also true the judge in both cases - then district judge Jeff McElroy - and perhaps law enforcement and prosecutors, have known Orozco and Rivera for years, since they were teens. They know something of the hard-luck start they had, the trauma or drug addiction that led them down the path of violence they've been on. Maybe they just keep hoping something will finally click and the two young men will turn their lives around and stop hurting other people.

But agreeing to put two violent felons, who already have been given second and third chances, in rehab was unwise.

They need treatment. But treatment in a place - like prison - from which they cannot walk away and risk harming someone else.


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