PERALTA— As Peralta grapples with speeders within the township, Municipal Judge Tracy Aragon decided to think outside the box.
He has come up with a way to sentence some teenagers to help them with a life skill, while still showing them the negative impacts of speeding and other traffic citations.
“I could see that fines and driving school weren’t enough,” Aragon said. “More than likely, the parents would probably pay their fine, and for driving school, although it is a good class, I know these kids weren’t going to take it seriously.
“How do I know that? Because I would have been one of those kids. I was seeing teens getting citations not just for 10 miles over the speed limit, but 65 in a 45, 60 in a 35. I recently had a 16 year old going 70 in a 45.”
Instead of sentencing these youths to the traditional community service of picking trash on the side of the road, Aragon has the teen offenders give a short presentation to the Peralta Town Council about the dangers of speeding. The speech is then followed with additional questions from both the mayor and councilors about the reason the young person received a ticket in the first place.
What started as a trial run towards the end of 2021, has now become a typical installment at the public town meetings, with two to three teenagers offering presentations.
“From then on it became a source of community service. Some might think that this is a form of public humiliation, but it’s quite the opposite,” Aragon said. “When they’re done with their presentation, the council looks at these kids with respect and praises their efforts. My main focus is not to punish, but to change driving habits and educate and inform. Once you learn something, it’s yours for life.”
The idea for the alternative service began to brew after Aragon had a conversation with his own son about his disdain for public speaking. Remembering his own experience with speaking in public through a class his freshman year of college, he began to consider it as an option for teens with traffic citations.
“As much as I hated to talk in public, I was a shy teenager, most of us are, I had to research and remember those topics and I still remember those topics to this day,” the judge said about the college course.
Thomas Romero, 20, of Los Lunas, gave a presentation to the council as his community service after several run-ins with law enforcement, the most recent being driving with an expired registration, which landed him in jail for two days.
Previous to being pulled over in Peralta, Romero was charged with DUI and had a warrant for his arrest after failing to appear in court in 2021 due to miscommunications of the proceedings being held online.
Romero said he was not expecting that outcome of being in Aragon’s municipal courtroom, and is grateful for the opportunity.
“I was expecting worse. Fine, payments,” Romero said. “Talking to the council is a little nerve-wracking, but you got to do it, you got to talk.”
Romero said during his presentation, it was comments from Peralta Councilor Joseph Romero that stuck with him.
The councilor shared that his nephew was killed by a drunk driver on N.M. 47 several years ago, and warned of the dangers of drinking and driving.
“This is a really good opportunity for kids to try to make better choices,” said Nadine Torrez, Thomas’s mother who accompanied him to the meeting. “It allows them to do the research and actually, maybe some of the stuff they are reading will actually sink in. That way, when they do come across the situation again, then they’ll have that sitting in the back of their mind, and the governing council will have a lasting impact.”
Aragon plans to keep a binder with copies of the teenagers’ speeches as reference so he can continue to track the work they are doing.
“The one thing I’ve learned from this, is that we have some amazing kids in this community,” the judge said. “ I would hate to lose them to something as senseless as speeding.
“The talks they give are very well researched and extremely educational for everyone in the meeting. I honestly believe that they learned something that they will remember for the rest of their life”
Makayla Grijalva was born and raised in Las Cruces. She is a 2020 graduate of The University of New Mexico, where she studied multimedia journalism, political science and history. She covers the village of Los Lunas, Los Lunas Schools, SODA and the town of Peralta.