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Asked/Answered: Embracing Treatment Over Incarceration

Associate Judge Teresa K. Kim-Tenorio ’01 oversees the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Island’s (CNMI) first treatment court program, Adult Drug Court.

Tell me about your path from New England Law to your current role as a CNMI Superior Court Associate Judge?

After attending New England Law, I moved ‘back home’ (to the CNMI). I worked in the private sector for a little while, then as the legal counsel for the local Legislature. Later on I was asked by the Speaker of the House who was elected Governor, to move to the Executive Branch. In 2013 there was a vacancy on the bench, and I was nominated by the Governor. It was confirmed by the Senate and I started serving as a Judge in December of 2013. I went through my first retention election last year, and here I am!

When you were in law school, what do you recall peaking your interest the most?

I’ll admit I probably watched too many TV shows growing up that depicted the action that takes place in courtrooms. So I knew right when I started law school that I wanted to get involved with mock trial. I competed in mock trial both my 2L and 3L years. As 3Ls, my partner and I went to regionals. We didn’t end up winning, but I knew by then that I wanted to be a trial attorney.

What inspired you to advocate for Drug Court in the CNMI?

I’m actually embarrassed to say that in the very beginning, I actually didn’t advocate for Drug Court. Back then I was somewhat oblivious to treatment courts. But the judge at the time, Judge Wiseman, had the wits to start exploring the idea of treatment courts in the CNMI. And when he retired, the project fell into my lap.

I started reading up on treatment courts. Not everyone realizes that Drug Court is one of the most researched criminal justice programs in the United States. Drug Court programs are needed because when people come out of jail, there’s a high recidivism rate when they haven’t been rehabilitated. And at that particular point in time, as Drug Court was being considered, the CNMI was getting hit with a second large wave of methamphetamine use. We had to do something.

What kind of impact has Drug Court had on your community thus far?

When we started Drug Court, I think the biggest skeptics of the program were actually the families of the addicts themselves. We had to get them to understand that drug addiction is a disease, and that there is treatment available. One of the biggest impacts that the program has had so far is that the community now sees that addiction is a treatable disease.

What I’m also really proud of is how the community has built up our resources for those battling addiction. Before Drug Court started, we only had one or two AA meetings held a week. There weren’t a lot of places for Drug Court participants to turn to when they weren’t in a great place. Today there are about twenty AA/NA/CMA meetings a week. And that’s been driven by recovering peers.

How does incorporating programs with a focus on rehabilitation into the judicial system make communities as a whole better off?

First off, recidivism rate. Here in the CNMI it’s about $32,000 a year to house a healthy inmate. And after those initial years are served, when that inmate comes out, they’re usually in survival mode. More often than not they end up back in the system. Which means more taxpayer dollars. Currently it’s costing us about $7,500-$10,000 for each participant in our program. So first, we’re actually saving the taxpayers money. And second, we’re making the community safer. Once participants graduate from the program, they’re ready to reintegrate into the community as productive citizens.

Is there a project or initiative that you’re especially excited about right now?

The Superior Court as a whole is moving towards implementing more treatment court programs. We’re really looking to get mental health and family wellness courts off the ground here. Additionally, we’re excited to explore new possibilities such as juvenile drug court, veteran treatment court, post-conviction drug court, and possibly environmental court programs.

 

This piece was originally published in the 2020 Edition of The Bridge, New England Law's Alumni Magazine. Flip through a digital copy of the edition: here.