by Norm Kent
Here I go again, with one of those moderate and sensible proposals which have led to people calling me too liberal for years. I can live with it. Ideas should be debated robustly.
You see, by this column, I propose our courts initiate a one year project where we adopt a policy of an alternative to incarceration for DUI's. I suggest we mandate that anyone arrested and charged with a DUI be immediately screened for alcoholism within fourteen days of their initial incarceration.
Once released from custody, the accused defendant must be evaluated by skilled clinicians to determine if they are candidates for a DUI court that would be modeled after Felony Drug Court. Correspondingly, as an initial step, one county court judge would be assigned to the DUI court program.
Since our state mandates minimums for the DUI penalties, the proposal would call for courageous intervention by the State Attorney’s office. Instead of a standard adjudication and the minimums after six months, the DUI court should be one year in duration, with supervision and counseling monitored over that period of time. Upon completion of the program successfully, the State would agree to a plea to a reduced charge of reckless driving.
Theoretically, the option to enter the DUI court would be open to all first offenders, but the State could outline certain conditions occurring during the arrest which excluded some individuals from electing the program. A blue ribbon committee of defense attorneys, jurists, and prosecutors would work out these terms. So too would the committee iron out and reach an agreement on which second time offenders would be allowed entry into such a program. The terms can come later, but we should agree on the concept now.
Inclusive of the counseling that would be attendant with a DUI court are programs involving anger management, psychological counseling, and medical treatment, where necessary. There would be an educational component, therapy, and affirmative steps that have historically retarded recidivism. They would be alternatives to incarceration for VOPs too.
Here is what I know after being a lawyer for 30 years: alcoholism is a terrible thing which leads to self-destructiveness and violence. Unfortunately, many of those who abuse alcohol get behind the wheel of a car and become unwilling links to death and destruction. Sometimes they strike out in rage and cause families to suffer. But alcoholism leads to multiple other problems and road rage and lots of bad things. Let us do better things to help tame the problem we know exists.
Intervention for a first time offender may sometimes just not be necessary. But let's find out if it is a precursor to a deeper issue. The DUI may have been committed by some kid at a birthday party who just went off the deep end on a singular nite; some young person who could not control his liquor. The real drunk could pound down twice as many beers and drive better even while impaired. The DUI program is for the real drunk of course, but it is to prevent future drunks too.
We can put the person in jail just as easily I know. We always have. And we still have alcoholism and drunk drivers. But we are all so aware that so many people have drug and alcohol problems. Why do we not have a DUI court? Why do we simply offload and independently contract to others the responsibility? Let probation do this. Let someone else do that. What about in house supervision by the courts and the judiciary?
Historically, we know that drug courts integrate alcohol and other drug treatment services into the justice system. We know that alternatives to incarceration reduces recidivism and creates opportunities for offenders to turn around their lives, while actually saving taxpayers’ money.
Therefore, I propose this program be initiated, and the Chief Judge take those steps necessary and proper to get it underway. Won’t cost anyone a dime, and may save the system thousands.
A DUI court component to our justice system is so obvious I do not know why we do not have one already. But ask yourself this as a defense attorney or judge: when we rush through a plea for a DUI how many routinely fulfill the probationary terms with a minimal effort just to get through the six months and move on?
How many times is there legitimate judicial follow-up to reduce recidivism?
I am guessing, to be honest, since the first time pleas do not involve jail time, but straight probation, no lawyers have ever pressed for a DUI court. But maybe we serve our clients better if we give them an opportunity to be supervised longer.
Maybe we serve our society better if we do more than just get the best deal for the moment but work out the best answer to prevent our client from coming to us again, this time as a recidivist offender facing mandatory jail.
The bottom line is a DUI court would serve this community better than straight probation does. We ought to give society and our clients that option. And if it opens up the door to second offenders or reducing the final penalties for first offenders, we can all be for discussing the proposal. And I apologize if someone is already doing this and I just don't know about it.