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DUI court is a sobering solution

Recidivism rates drop dramatically for DUI court grads, study shows

POSTED: December 20, 2007 5:02 a.m.

One after another, the stories of redemption for repeat DUI offenders were told by Hall County State Court Judge Charles Wynne in a recent courtroom graduation ceremony.

Janice changed her environment, went to church and resolved to only spend time with "positive people."
Charles was ready to put a gun to his head and end his own life. Now he plans to enter the seminary.
Robert struck a tree in a drunk-driving wreck and thought he had hit a child. The waking nightmare served as his wake-up call.

Jesus used to come home drunk and have to make his own dinner. Now his wife has hand-made tortillas waiting for him after work.

A year after being ordered into Hall County's DUI court, these participants and many others came through with changed lives, by their own accounts. And while the focus on the strict, three-stage program is on reducing recidivism, the personal transformations can't be overlooked.

"Certainly the public safety aspect is first and foremost," Wynne said. "But this program is also about lives that have been strengthened and families that have been restored."

Now in its fourth year, Hall County's DUI court has graduated 233 repeat offenders. They went through a 12-month period of forced sobriety that required court appearances every other week, regular drug and alcohol screens, home visits from deputies, group and individual therapy and mandatory Alcoholics Anonymous meetings.

Unlike Hall County's felony drug court, the program is not voluntary, and no charges are dismissed upon its completion. It is ordered by the court as a condition of probation for most people who have been convicted of multiple DUI offenses.

Many, if not most, enter the program grudgingly. Some fail and serve out the balance of their probation in jail after progressively harsher punishments don't bring compliance. Others emerge with praise for the program.

"When I first came into the program I didn't have that warm, fuzzy feeling," said 32-year-old Jason, who graduated from DUI court in 2006 and has returned since then to speak to participants at their commencement. "I was miserable. I just wasn't putting myself into it."

Six months into the program, he relapsed and was nabbed by a surprise drug test. He considers that relapse the turning point.

"At that point I actually realized what I wanted out of life, and it didn't involve drugs and alcohol," Jason said. "It was a chance to let my head clear up, get my life back on track and see all the positive things that come from being clean and sober."

Jason credits DUI court with the life changes he's seen, including several job promotions and a return to college to pursue a degree in social work.

"I look back on the program and see nothing but positives," he said.

No gray areas
On a recent Thursday afternoon, there is a line of convicted drunk drivers who are not in the same place that Jason is today. On this day, they will be taken to task and handed the dreaded green sheet of paper that details their court-ordered sanctions, which can range from a day of sitting in court to community service to jail time.

Before entering the courtroom, they were required to blow into a hand-held alcohol sensor to prove they hadn't been drinking.

State Court Solicitor-General Larry Baldwin calls out their names loudly, so that he can be heard above the low murmur of the crowded courtroom. They approach the podium to face the judge.

"Judge, (the participant) is struggling with her recovery," Baldwin announces, before listing off her infractions.

Failure to arrive for scheduled drug screens. A positive screen for marijuana. Failure to attend AA meetings.

It's not the first time she's broken the rules, and on this day, she will leave the courtroom in handcuffs, escorted by a deputy to a holding cell. She will spend the next 18 days in jail, and be held to a dusk-to-dawn curfew for the five months following her release.

"You built yourself 18 days in jail," Wynne tells the young, single mother. "I take no pleasure in sending you to jail, but there are consequences. Now, you can do this program, but you're going to have to take it more seriously."

Many people are taken off to jail on this Thursday. Most are "Phase One" participants, who have not, for whatever reasons, been able to stick to the regimented plan laid out for them and graduate to the next phase.

Stephanie Woodard, the defense attorney who acts as advocate for DUI court participants, says their success in the program "is entirely dependant on how much responsibility they take."

Repeat offenders accustomed to using trade-offs and manipulations to get away with their transgressions will find no gray areas here, Woodard said.

"As a society, we learn to avoid consequences," Woodard said. "And this program is about facing consequences."

For every person sent to jail, however, there are that many and more in the so-called "good groups."

These are brought before the judge en masse as Baldwin announces they have been following the program to the letter and will not be recommended for sanctions. They are rewarded with applause, something encouraged in accountability courts, and gift cards from local merchants like Sears and Longstreet Cafe that are given out by random drawing.

But Wynne is quick to note in an interview that his court "is not a program that is soft on repeat DUI offenders."

"Rather, it's something that combines an appropriate jail sentence with a structured program thereafter that helps address the underlying problem," Wynne said. "Certainly jail has its place, but if you don't address the underlying addiction problems, then you're just delaying the person being back on the street, drinking and driving."

Award-winning program
When Hall County started its DUI court in 2003, it was one of only three pilot programs in the state. There are now 13 DUI courts in Georgia, with Hall County's program an acknowledged leader, said Jane Martin, associate director for children, families and the courts at Georgia's Administrative Office of the Courts.

Martin points to a study that showed persons who were convicted of a repeat drunk-driving offense prior to the advent of Hall County's DUI court were four times more likely to be caught driving drunk again within two years than the program's graduates.

Only 5 percent of Hall County's 233 DUI court graduates have committed another drunk-driving offense, compared with a recidivism rate of 19 percent for those who don't go through the program, according to an independent study by Applied Research Services.

Wynne's program is unique in that it is bilingual, offering a treatment track for Hispanic DUI offenders who speak little or no English. During a typical court hearing, as many as one-fifth of the participants are seated in a section of the gallery with an interpreter translating the proceedings for them.

The all-inclusive aspect of the program, combined with its statistically backed track record of success, helped earn Hall County's DUI court recognition this year as Innovative Court Program of the Year from the Georgia Council of Court Administrators.

"You don't get the award unless you're an established program with proven effectiveness," Martin said. "What Judge Wynne does is pretty incredible to me."

Said Debbie Mott, assistant director for treatment services for the Northeastern Judicial Circuit, "Those of us who call Hall County home are fortunate to have officials who believe in these programs, from judges to prosecutors to county commissioners."

Wynne, who along with Baldwin and other court officials fit the DUI court into an already packed docket of cases, takes satisfaction in what he calls the "intangible rewards."

"To hear a graduate thank this court program for allowing them to have their family back, to get their job back, to get their life back, those are priceless, intangible awards over and above the specific public safety benefits to this county," Wynne said.

Said Baldwin, the prosecutor, "We always hear so much from the graduates: ‘I bought my first car. I bought my first house. I got my first promotion.' We hear about a lot of firsts."

On commencement day, new graduate Charles eagerly took the microphone to testify how the program and his own personal faith helped him turn his life around. "Today I have purpose in my life," he said.



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