New court gives hope to hard-core DUI offendersSIOUX FALLS (AP) — Some drunken drivers can’t stop on their own, even after a second or third arrest, treatment for alcohol abuse or time behind bars.
By: AP, The Associated Press
SIOUX FALLS (AP) — Some drunken drivers can’t stop on their own, even after a second or third arrest, treatment for alcohol abuse or time behind bars.
Lane Gordon tried to wreck his car and kill himself on his second DUI. He survived and kept drinking and driving for another decade.
David Hayes, Jr. has been through alcohol treatment six times. He hopes his latest DUI will be the last.
Gordon and Hayes were among 61 cases that came through the Minnehaha County court system recently. They represent a class of hard-core offenders dealing with a variety of issues in addition to addictive, often destructive behavior, which many experts say requires a more aggressive approach.
One method has been tested in Pierre since 2009. It’s a specific DUI court that uses a range of resources to rebuild the person from the ground up, focusing on sobriety, job skills and any mental health issues. The goal is not to punish the drunken driver, but to gradually and safely reintegrate them into a society they had spurned for alcohol, said Lori Wilbur, who served as the DUI court judge until her appointment to the South Dakota Supreme Court this spring.
“The emphasis is on dealing not only with the drinking problem that brings these people to court but all the other problems they’ve got,” Wilbur said. “Our concern is always public safety, but we’re also interested in giving them the tools that they need to succeed outside the four walls of the prison.”
DUI court programs show positive results in South Dakota and nationwide. A similar drug-focused court in Minnehaha County also has shown promise in its first year. Advocates say South Dakota, with a high per-capita concentration of DUI arrests and alcohol-related traffic accidents, could benefit from widespread adoption of such a system.
Money can be diverted from the corrections system by getting offenders out of a cycle driven by alcohol and drug addiction. Unless money can be found for a DUI court, however, some doubt that the idea will gain traction in the near term.
The most difficult and most expensive DUI cases are those involving repeat offenders. It costs about $70 a day to house a drunken driver in the South Dakota State Penitentiary, and pre-trial costs to the counties for court-appointed lawyers and monitoring add up for months before felony cases reach the sentencing phase.
DUI courts grow
Since the first DUI court was set up in Las Cruces, N.M., in 1995, the number of programs has grown to 569 in 35 states, said David Wallace of the National Center for DWI Courts. The programs are designed to use the courtroom as a support system for addicts who wish to conquer the alcoholism at the root of their problems but don’t have the tools to do so.
Studies highlighted by Wallace’s organization shows that program graduates are as much as 65 percent less likely to re-offend than those handled through traditional means, but the concept of moving away from punishment has been a hard sell.
Restrictions meant to protect public safety are built into the 10 DUI court concepts used by the DWI Courts. To be eligible, an offender generally must be a felon, they cannot have a history of violence or sex offenses and they have to be willing to adhere to the strict probation rules and monitoring from probation and police officers.
In Pierre, the program lasts at least 18 months. During that time, participants interact with a judge once a week and have another 14 to 20 contacts per week with law enforcement through 24/7, meetings with counselors and social workers and lawyers.
When people take an interest in an addict’s life and an authority figure cheers on their success, the outlook of the participant changes radically, Wilbur said.
“They develop a relationship with the judge that statistics have shown makes a difference,” she said. “They come to see the court process in a different way than they’ve ever seen it. It’s always been punitive and scary and now it becomes friendly and supportive.”
Among the 61 drunken drivers who appeared in court in late January in Minnehaha County are a handful who know the court system only as punitive.
Gordon, who’s been in and out of prison for drunk driving, false impersonation and a handful of other crimes since he was 18 years old, admits that he has a prison mindset. He was arrested for his third DUI in 10 years — the fifth in his life — on Jan. 24.
“I hate the cops,” Gordon said. “I hate being on probation. I don’t like authority. That’s something I know I’ve gotta work on.”
Gordon is now living in the Arch halfway house in Sioux Falls. It’s a sober living home that works group treatment sessions into the days of its residents. Beyond that, his options for a support system are slim.
Gordon doesn’t speak to his biological father or his adoptive parents. His mother is doing 25 years to life in a federal prison in Pueblo, Colo. He has an uncle in town, but that uncle is a homeless alcoholic in a wheelchair who Gordon says is “one of those guys who will buy you jug and get drunk with you.”
Because of the way he’s lived his life, his social network is filled with people who can influence one another to make bad decisions.
“It kinda goes back to that prison thing. The people I hang out with, most of them are felons,” Gordon said. “How they make their money, how I make my money, it’s mostly through scheming.”
Still, Gordon’s lengthy criminal history isn’t filled with violence, it’s filled with drinking, lying to police and driving without a license.
Hayes, who has four DUIs on his record, does have violence in his past. There have been several domestic violence charges leveled against him by the mother of his children. She’s also taken out protection orders against him. He’s taken out protection orders against her.
All of it was driven by alcohol and drugs, Hayes said. The woman he shares the children with was arrested for drug possession this year and the children were taken into protective custody.
He wants to prove he can get clean, stay clean and be a father for children, but he’s struggled outside the walls of prison to stay accountable.
“Me and her, we have to learn to get along for the sake of those kids,” Hayes said.
Lavar Blackmon, a fifth-offender convicted at a September trial, spent plenty of time in prison, but never for violence. Blackmon, 32, said he’s been through treatment a half dozen times but hasn’t been able to kick his habits and hasn’t been able to stop himself from driving while drunk.
Blackmon also struggles with authority. Until Judge Peter Lieberman sentenced him to 8 years in prison in November, Blackmon hadn’t been sent directly to prison. Rather, he violated parole by drinking.
“At the time, it’s because I was on parole. Just because somebody was telling me I couldn’t do something ... on paper it was something I can’t do, but clearly I could do it,” Blackmon said.
Because there is no DUI court in Sioux Falls, it’s difficult to gauge whether Gordon, Hayes, Blackmon or any of the other offenders profiled in this series would be accepted into or successful during a DUI court.
The task of monitoring and assisting DUI offenders is shared by 24/7 sobriety program workers, court services officers and a patchwork of community organizations such as Glory House or Volunteers of America. First and second offenders, even those who counselors would classify as alcohol-dependent, are only monitored through 24/7.
The caseload in Minnehaha County is too large for the 26 court services officers to take misdemeanor cases, said Patty Vonsick, chief court services officer.
“It would be nice to have enough staff to cover magistrate cases, but that’s not the reality,” Vonsik said.
Depending on the seriousness of the violation, a felony DUI offender will meet with their court service officer either once a month or once every three months, for about 15 minutes to a half hour.
Officers can direct people to treatment programs or Alcoholics Anonymous meetings, connect them with others who can help them find housing or point them toward the Department of Social Services for help dealing with problems at home, but they cannot provide follow-through a week later.
Each officer has 130 to 140 people to supervise, and several officers deal only with juveniles.
“If there are dual issues, we hope they are identified,” Vonsik said. “We’re not the experts. We don’t have chemical dependency degrees.”
Start-up costs and continued funding have been stumbling blocks for DUI courts. The Pierre court used a grant from the National Highway and Traffic Safety Administration to get up and running.
Supporters say the money saved by keeping people out of prison justifies any upfront cost.
A focus on meth
Judge Patricia Riepel runs Minnehaha County’s drug court, which is similar to a DUI court but focuses on methamphetamine addicts. The first participants started Jan. 1. The program runs mostly on in-kind donations and volunteered time from police, court officials and community partners.
Riepel’s program handles 14 people at a time without state funding. Everyone pleads guilty and is sentenced to prison before they start. They spend 30 days in jail, then are released on the condition of four random urinalysis tests a week and a weekly meeting with Riepel.
Like DUI court, the offenders are monitored by a team of police officers, defense attorneys and prosecutors, court services officers and counselors who meet each week prior to court.
The rules are strict. Missing a test is grounds for a night in jail. To graduate, the person must have two full years of sobriety. A dirty test resets the clock. The program’s monitoring system receives a boost from the home environment of most participants, who tend to start out in a sober living home like the Arch that places strict rules on its residents.
“There is no coddling in my drug court,” Riepel said. “I firmly believe that there are some people who belong in the penitentiary, but there are some people we can help.”
In 11 months, only three urine tests have come back dirty.
Every Wednesday morning, Riepel calls each of the 14 participants up by first name, one by one, starting with those who have the most continuous sobriety.
“How many days?” she says.
The answer, whatever it is, elicits applause from the rest of the courtroom. Riepel then asks the participant about their children, their job, their holiday plans — even about their haircuts. She praises them for success and encourages those nearing a transition moment, such as a move to a new apartment or an upcoming test in school.
“Twenty-five years of experience has taught me that people respond more to positive reinforcement,” Riepel said.
Steve Fodness, director of the Arch, said any help his residents can get outside the walls of the home gives them a better shot at long-term success.
“We’re basically housing folks and giving them a place to sleep and something to eat while they look for a job,” Fodness said.
Riepel recently told a group of state legislators that if each of the 14 people in her drug court were to serve their full prison sentence, it would cost the state $2,651,860.
The total savings for the county was $142,618.
It’s going to take money to expand. Riepel runs a full schedule of cases. The sessions are squeezed in during the early morning.
Justice Wilbur acknowledges that funding is a serious hurdle. DUI and drug courts usually handle only 12 to 20 people at a time, and each one takes community buy-in and money for intensive probation.
The savings can be huge, said Wallace. In Orange County, Calif., four DUI courts saved $8 million in jail bed costs, Wallace said.
“If we’re using jail more strategically and treatment more appropriately, we’ll save money in the long-term,” he said.
More important, Wilbur said, is the outcome for the community as a whole.
If it works on a large enough scale, Wilbur said, the state can help stop the cycle that moves problem drinkers in and out of the state’s institutions.
“It’s very expensive to house someone in the penitentiary,” Wilbur said. “If you shift those costs to the front, you might not have saved any money, but you might solve the addiction problem.”