Friday, September 26, 2008

Denny Hartford on DUI Courts

I almost forgot to post a recent commentary by the head of Vital Signs Ministries.

Denny's column was published in the 9-21-08 Omaha World-Herald.

Midlands Voices

Drug-court concept successfully being applied to drunken driving


The writer, of Omaha, is director of Vital Signs Ministries.

One of the most important developments in the war against drunken drivers is the expansion of specialized DUI courts. Nearly 450 such courts now exist across the country. Many experts credit them as being a major reason for the remarkable 3.7 percent drop in alcohol-impaired driving fatalities since last year.

The war against drunken drivers is one with very real casualties: Each year, 15,000 to 18,000 people are killed in alcohol-related traffic crashes.

Certainly other factors are involved: greater diligence of law enforcement, interlock device laws, sobriety checks, educational campaigns, more prosecutors and judges getting tougher on DUI crimes, etc. I applaud all of these things and pray that they will expand further.

But DUI courts are aimed at changing the behavior of the worst offenders, those criminals who haven’t let even convictions or license revocations keep them from climbing behind the wheel when impaired. As such, the DUI courts represent a crucial line of defense for the public as well as a proven course of more effective help for the offenders.

The State of Nebraska, however, has yet to create a single DUI court, although the Nebraska Supreme Court did allow a “hybrid court” to start in Scotts Bluff County last fall. This is a “problem-solving court” that normally deals with drug cases but has been allowed to include drunken drivers in its caseload.

DUI courts, like other problem-solving courts, use a team approach (the courts, alcohol and drug treatment, mental health counseling and other programs) to more effectively reduce recidivism rates. It’s an approach that seeks to better serve the victims, the community, the law and even the offenders themselves.

But this doesn’t mean that these courts go soft on criminals driving under the influence of alcohol or drugs. Indeed, unlike what generally happens in regular courts dealing with such cases, DUI courts involve strict coercion measures to guarantee that the offender is in treatment. Monitoring the offender’s ac?countability is careful and more thorough as well.

And regular penalties aren’t waived, either. In the case of the Scotts Bluff County DUI court, for instance, all DUI offenders must serve the full length of the minimum jail term. That’s tougher than what one often can expect from a regular court.

But, again, the most salient fact is that specialized DUI courts are working. All across the nation, they are helping get repeat drunken drivers off the road:

■ A 2007 study by the Michigan Supreme Court found that offenders sentenced to traditional probation were 19 times more likely to be rearrested for a DUI charge than were DUI court participants.

■ In Chester County, Pa., drug court graduates had a rearrest rate of 5.4 percent, compared with a 21.5 percent rearrest rate among the control group. Com?parable rates were 33 percent versus 48 percent in Dade County, Fla. (Miami), and 16 percent versus 49 percent in Dallas.

■ Perhaps the largest statewide study on drug courts was conducted by the Center for Court Innovation in New York. The study found that the reconviction rate among defendants who participated in six of the state’s drug courts was 29 percent lower over three years than for the same types of offenders who did not enter the drug court.

And DUI courts are not just saving lives and improving the chances for offenders to keep from driving drunk again. They also can save taxpayers money.

Research in Multnomah County, Ore. (Portland), for example, concluded that taxpayers saved $10 for every $1 spent on drug courts. The Department of Economics at Southern Methodist University came up with similar findings — $9.43 saved for every $1 put into drug courts.

No, the traditional courts have not provided adequate answers for repeat DUI offenders. So the numbers of drivers and pedestrians killed by repeat drunken drivers keep piling up, as do the numbers of shattered lives, bereaved families and severe economic effects.

So, as one who has been advocating more aggressive police action, tougher penalties and more effective laws since 1985, when a drunken driver in Colorado killed my father, I’m asking the Nebraska Supreme Court to better and more quickly appreciate the critical service to all of our citizens that DUI courts could provide.

By all means, let’s advance on all fronts in the war against drunken driving. But let’s make sure that our advance includes the speedy creation of specialized DUI courts.

1 comment:

OmaSteak said...

There are monitoring devices, similar to those used to monitor persons under house arrest, that can continuouly monitor and report if someone convicted of DUI consumes alcohol. Use of these devices, paid for by the wearer, should be mandatory. People who violate no driving sentences or commit another DUI should serve mandatory jail time then be required to wear such a monitor for a period of years with immediate return to jail if they consume alcohol. There is no excuse for not using this technology to properly monitor and control offenders.