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Alternative Sentencing Program helps create better citizens

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Retired state policeman and former sheriff, Rob Coon teaches an ASPEN class at the Rodeway Inn on West Second. The classes are designed to give criminals a new way to look at their lives so that they can function better in society. To date over 40,000 New Mexicans have gone through the ASPEN program. (Submitted Photo)

This is part two of a two part article about the Alternative Sentencing Program.

Judge K.C. Rogers, one of the founders of the Alternative Sentencing Program & Educational Network, known as ASPEN, along with former sheriff and current instructor Rob Coon, sat with the Daily Record and explained how the class works to help keep the jail population down.
“One of the easiest things about this class is that we don’t judge anybody,” Rogers said. “Knowledge is power and if they use the knowledge we offer them, great. But if they don’t, they can’t complain because they know better.”
They try to make the point that the law is here to stay.
“The system isn’t going away,” Rogers said. “The laws aren’t getting more lenient. Cops are getting better at their jobs, and judges are getting tired of seeing it. They need to accept that everything they don’t like about the system will be waiting for them the next time that they get caught. Or they can quit.”
Rogers said that criminals tend to be selfish.
“Take a man in his 50s, he’s been in the system more than out of it,” Rogers said. “He’s never gone to prison but he keeps giving pieces of his life away 90 days at a time. They think about themselves, their immediate needs.
“In this class they’re often asked, ‘who is the most important person in your life?’ It’s not unusual to find them saying ‘Me!’ Young kids, gang members and the like, it’s their friends.
“The older guy, it almost always comes down to a mom or a grandma, whatever adult stepped in to raise them. So we ask the guy, ‘Do you love your grandma?’ They do. Then you ask, ‘Did she love you enough to raise you? She didn’t have to raise you. She did it out of love. Do you think that she would die for you?’ They never hesitate. It’s always yes.”
Now they can make a difference.
“We say, ‘Now let’s talk about you,’” Rogers said. “How much do you love her? When she gets old, will you take care of her? Will you take her to the doctor? Will you take care of her the way she took care of you?’ And they say ‘yes.’ Then we ask, ‘Do you love her enough to die for her? If they said you had to give up your life to save hers, would you do it?’ They almost always say yes.
“Then we ask, ‘Do you love her enough to change? Do you love her enough to stop? She raised you to be somebody you’re not. You’re a criminal. You make bad decisions all day long. Do you love her enough to stop living a life that causes her to lay in bed at night praying that nothing happens to you, and beg that you’re OK, and that is every moment of her life? She’s worried about you. Do you love her enough to stop doing that?’”
By the time they get to this point, the student has a lot to think about.
“It’s amazing,” Rogers said. “Grown men who’ve spent half their life in prison, tears will be running down their face and they’ll say, ‘yeah, I do.’”
Now it’s time to help them.
“We tell them, ‘Then you’ve got to change,’” he said. “You’ve got to make better decisions. This is how you change. These are the things that you start doing. Recognize that you’re not alone in your behavior.
“Most people who have these issues do not act alone all the time. They’re almost always driven by other parties. Even the guy who’s the leader of the pack, won’t be the leader if there’s not a pack. So, they’ve got to look at the people they associate with.”
From there it’s a matter of breaking their story down to workable details.
“We ask them, ‘Can you get yourself a job?” Rogers said. “Are you in a position to start making changes? If so, then it’s time to start. You can take little bitty steps until you can take great big steps. All of this is done, pointing out negative results stemming from negative behaviors, with the understanding that they can change all this.”
It took some time for the program to be able to prove its worth.
“When we first started this, I had judges and lawyers and people with a lot of letters after their names question who were we to do this,” Rogers said. “Our response was that we knew more about criminals’ behavior than most people. We had a much better understanding of it because we dealt with it in a different manner, and we’re not here to change their life. We’re here to just give them information.
“I’m not a counselor. I can’t help you if you’re wetting the bed and eating flowers. But if you’re robbing people, I’ve got a problem with that. If you’re causing problems for other people, I’ve got a problem with that. You may need a counselor for the bed wetting, but you just need a good swift kick in the butt if you won’t quit smoking weed and go get a job.”
Rogers and his peers don’t turn away from the tough questions, they generally ask them.
“I had a judge ask me one time, ‘If I sent a 40-year-old heroin addicted prostitute to your class, what are you going to do for her?’” he said. “I said, ‘If she goes to the health clinic and gets her STDs dealt with. If she signs up for the needle exchange program, so she’s not using dirty needles anymore, but she’s still being a prostitute, have we failed?’ He said, ‘no’ and I said ‘well then that’s what we’re going to do.’
“We may not be able to get her to stop all of her behaviors. We can’t stop addiction. We’re not counselors. But we have to show them that there’s another way to go and that they can deal with these things. And that the people that they fear the most — cops — actually have an understanding of it. We just have a job we have to do.”
The cop experience with the instructor’s delivery is where the rubber meets the road at ASPEN.
“Now we get to use that experience to say, ‘Do you know that you can go to the clinic?’” Rogers said. “Do you know that legally, law enforcement can have no knowledge of who is participating in the needle exchange program? It’s totally confidential.’ We’ve dealt with thousands of people in this way. Most really good police officers weren’t good guys. Guys that have been around the block make good cops.”
Coon said this work has affected him strongly.
“As a policeman I saw the worst in people,” Coon said, “but teaching these classes I see that little light come on and they realize what they’ve been doing wrong all this time. I go to the store and people stop me and thank me, tell me that they’ve turned their life around because of the class. I go home thinking maybe I have made a difference.”
Features reporter Curtis M. Michaels can be reached at 575-622-7710, ext. 205, or at reporter04@rdrnews.com.