Wednesday, September 17, 2008

For the War Against Drunk Driving, Specialized DWI Courts Needed Now.

One of the most important developments in the war against drunk drivers (and it's a war remember with very real casualties: 15-18,000 people are killed annually in alcohol-related traffic crashes) is the expansion of specialized DWI Courts. Nearly 450 such courts now exist across the country and David Wallace, Director of the government's National Center for DWI Courts, credits them as being a major reason for the remarkable 3.7% drop in alcohol-impaired driving fatalities since last year.

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, and so on. I applaud all of these things and pray that they're extended more and more.

But DWI Courts are aimed at changing the behavior of the worst offenders, those criminals who haven't even let convictions or license revocations keep them from climbing behind the wheel when drunk. And, as such, the DWI 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 DWI Court although the Nebraska Supreme Court did allow a "hybrid court" to start in Scottsbluff County last fall. This is a "problem-solving court" which normally deals with drug cases but which has been allowed opportunities to include drunk drivers in its case load.

Nebraska's problem-solving courts, according to the Court's web page, "all seek to use judicial oversight and a comprehensive team approach to improve outcomes for victims, communities and participants. These court programs strive to achieve marked results like decreased drug/alcohol abuse and recidivism; at the same time, they seek to maintain the ultimate authority of the court process."

These courts generally act after the sentence is pronounced and, though the goal is to get people enrolled in alcohol and/or drug treatment programs, mental health counseling as needed, and regular participation in Narcotics Anonymous or Alcoholics Anonymous programs, it doesn't mean that the court is going soft on DWI criminals. Indeed, unlike what generally happens in regular courts dealing with such cases, DWI Courts involve strict coercion measures, guaranteeing the offender is in treatment. Monitoring the offender's accountability is careful and more thorough. Criminals convicted in DWI Courts are regularly tested for alcohol use as well as being required to appear regularly in court (often every week) for the judge to review their progress.

And regular penalties aren't waived either. Scott Carlson, the Statewide Coordinator of Problem-Solving Courts, told me this afternoon that, in the case of the Scottsbluff court, all DWI offenders must serve the full length of the minimum jail term. Again, that's tougher than what one can often expect from a regular court.

But so far, the Nebraska Supreme Court has been reluctant to move forward on the creation of DWI Courts. As one source explained, the Justices are concerned about appearing to be too lenient with drunk drivers. And so they're waiting for more conclusive results.

I understand their caution. And I sympathize with their concerns of being too lenient with the perpetrators of this particular crime. I've been advocating more aggressive police action, tougher penalties, and more effective laws since 1985 when my father was killed by a drunk driver in Colorado.

But how long will it be before the Nebraska Supreme Court members appreciate the good results already piling up from specialized DWI Courts?

Wallace argues, "These courts are changing the behavior of the high-risk drinking drivers. The fact that the number of fatal crashes involving these drivers has not changed is unacceptable. We've been doing the same thing for years with these individuals and it has not worked. It is time for a change. DWI courts are that change and must be expanded throughout the country."

A 2007 study by the Michigan Supreme Court found that offenders sentenced to traditional probation were 19 times more likely to be re-arrested for a DUI charge than a DWI court participant.

Have the Nebraska Supreme Court members read that study?

Or these?

* A 2000 Vera Institute of Justice report concluded that “the body of literature on recidivism is now strong enough, despite lingering methodological weaknesses, to conclude that completing a drug court program reduces the likelihood of future arrest.”

* The largest statewide study on drug courts to date was released in 2003 by the Center for Court Innovation (CCI). The study analyzed the impact of the New York State drug court system. The study found that the re-conviction rate among 2,135 defendants who participated in six of the state’s drug courts was, on average, 29 percent lower (13% to 47%) over three years than the for the same types of offenders who did not enter the drug court.

* In Chester County, Pennsylvania, drug court graduates had a rearrest rate of 5.4 percent, versus a 21.5 percent rearrest rate among the control group; a 33 percent rearrest rate for drug court graduates in Dade county, Florida, versus a 48 percent rearrest rate among the control group; and a 15.6 percent rearrest rate for drug court graduates in Dallas, Texas, versus a 48.7 percent rearrest rate for the control group.

The above are all cited by the National Drug Court Institute here.

Drug courts even save taxpayers money.

In Multnomah County, Oregon, a countywide study estimated that for every dollar spent on drug court, taxpayers saved ten dollars. A follow-up study in the same location conducted by the National Institute of Justice showed that when costs were compared between “doing business as usual” and the drug court model, the drug court model saved an average of $2,328.89 per year for each participant. One of the components of cost benefit analysis research is the value of the costs associated with victims of crime. If crime is reduced, the cost to victims, also known as “victimization costs,” is also reduced. When the victimization costs were accounted for in the Multnomah County study, the average savings increased to $3,596.92 per client. The total savings to the local taxpayer over a thirty-month period was $5,071.57 per participant, or a savings of $1,521,471 per year.

A study by the Department of Economics at Southern Methodist University reported that for every dollar spent on drug court in Dallas, Texas, $9.43 in tax dollar savings was realized over a forty-month period.

The questions must be asked again? Have the members of the Nebraska Supreme Court not read these studies? And how long will it be before it creates more DWI Courts here in the state?

The case is certainly persuasive on several fronts -- DWI Courts are proving more successful in getting drunk drivers off the road; in helping rescue more offenders from their dangerous behavior; and even in saving tax money.

The traditional courts haven't been the answer for repeat DWI offenders. And so the numbers of drivers and pedestrians killed by repeat drunk drivers keep piling up as do the numbers of shattered lives, bereaved families, and severe economic effects. So, by all means, let's advance on all fronts in the war against drunk driving. But let's make sure that includes the speedy creation of specialized DWI Courts.