Centre County DUI court looks to ‘break that cycle’ of addiction

More than 30 people gathered in the Courthouse Annex in Bellefonte late last month for the biweekly meeting of Centre County DUI court. It was a special session for the court, a graduation day. Two members were celebrating successful completion of the program, designed not only to hold repeat DUI offenders accountable for their actions but also to help them achieve and maintain sobriety to ensure further offenses don’t happen.

Statistics released last month show that DUI arrests in Centre County are at a 10-year low, and they have been gradually decreasing over the past five years. The court, now 5 years old, has played a role in the gradual decline, said Judge Bradley P. Lunsford, who presides over the court.

The success of the court goes beyond numbers, Lunsford said, and there is a very human side of the process as well. Most of the people who have gone through the program or are enrolled desperately want to be sober but can’t reach that goal because they are addicted to alcohol, and sometimes, other substances.

“It’s very inspiring,” Lunsford said of the program. “Very seldom do I walk away from a session and not feel inspired.”

A therapeutic approach

DUI courts are part of a problem-solving or therapeutic approach to courts designed to address and solve conditions and root causes of behavior . Other problem-solving courts in use nationwide are veterans courts, mental health courts, and the oldest and first problem-solving court, drug courts.

DUI courts grew out of the drug court model. The first DUI court began 20 years ago in New Mexico. As of summer 2014, that number had grown to more than 650 DUI courts nationwide, according to the National Center for State Courts. Most of these are hybrid drug/DUI treatment courts, while about 240 are strictly DUI courts, like the one in Centre County.

The courts are designed to not only keep the repeat offenders from driving as punishment, but to treat the underlying problem that led to the multiple offenses in the first place: alcoholism. Public safety is the courts’ No. 1 goal, one that is reached by keeping repeat offenders off the roads while treating addiction, said Deborah Smith, senior knowledge and information service analyst with the National Center for State Courts.

“They’re someone that has become entrenched in this behavior,” Smith said. “Instead of locking someone up and letting them out to repeat the behavior, they’re (the courts) trying to break that cycle.”

In Pennsylvania, Centre County is one of three counties to feature a DUI court only, while 12 others feature a DUI track as part of a drug court. There are no plans for the adoption of new drug courts, Administrative Office of Pennsylvania Courts spokesman Art Heinz said. Whether a county adopts such a court is often dependent on available resources and the magnitude of the problem there.

Heinz said he is certain that more will eventually be created because of the successes encountered by the ones already in existence.

“The selling point is the payoffs have proven to have cost savings, curb recidivism, or repeat offenders, and free up the jails,” Heinz said.

Since 2010, 32 people in Centre County have successfully completed the two-year program. Like most other DUI courts throughout the nation and the commonwealth, the court here is a collaborative effort between many county entities, like the court, District Attorney’s Office, defense bar, probation and parole, and corrections officials.

Only defendants who have committed a third offense are considered for the program, and the person must also be diagnosed as having a substance dependency. Lunsford said the majority of people who get DUIs learn their lesson the first time and don’t do it again. A smaller percentage will get a second offense; third-time offenders are the most high-risk, Lunsford said.

“They’re the ones usually most dangerous on our roads,” he said.

Someone who has committed a fourth offense or hurt or killed someone while driving impaired is prohibited from participation.

The program begins during a period of incarceration, a 30- to 90-day sentence at Centre County Correctional Facility. A woman, wearing a red Centre County Correctional Facility jumpsuit with marble notebook in hand, sat alone in the jury box at the last session. All participants have such a book, a daily journal, where they can write about obstacles to getting sober, or anything else for that matter, to be submitted at meetings held in the annex courtroom every two weeks.

The period of jail time is followed by house arrest and electronic monitoring, which is then followed by a period of more intense supervision before a transition to regular probation supervision. Those enrolled are subject to random drug and alcohol testing and required to attend prescribed treatment as well as 12-step programs and support groups regularly.

The system is also based on a series of rewards and sanctions. Incentives, like praise at a meeting or only being required to attend one meeting a month, await those progressing well. Sanctions include increased alcohol testing or stricter supervision. Before the graduation began, Lunsford called a man who had been 10 minutes late to the previous meeting before the court and gave him a day’s community service. More serious breaches, like skipping meetings, continued relapse or a new arrest while in the program, could result in expulsion from the program and incarceration in state prison.

‘Give it a chance’

At present, there are 28 people enrolled with another person to be added soon after sentencing. Some prior graduates of the program act as mentors and inspiration to those participants. Three people to go through DUI court were in attendance last month. Once of them, “Richard” — graduates and participants asked to remain anonymous — spoke about his experiences.

Richard told the participants that for his first two DUI arrests , he went through the motions and never saw himself as an alcoholic. After his third offense, speaking with the DUI court coordinator and some serious thinking while in jail, he was ready to quit drinking.

He thought about some people he used to know and drink with. A former co-worker killed someone while driving drunk and was given a lengthy prison sentence. Worse yet, Richard said the man would have to live with that on his conscience. Another co-worker injured some people in an accident; the guilt drove him to suicide. A third person shot himself while under the influence.

“That’s where alcohol will take us,” he said. “That’s where it leads us to go. I don’t want that for myself.”

Going through the program turned his life around “110 percent.” He told the audience that when he first set foot in the courtroom, Lunsford told him he looked “like crap.” Richard admitted he did. At present, he said he feels much better and looks like a healthy man his age. Before he stopped drinking, he lived in a small apartment. After going through DUI court, he saved enough money from quitting drinking to buy a small home.

He closed by telling those in the courtroom that it is difficult and he still thinks about drinking, but things like meetings and Alcoholics Anonymous, which he started attending through the court and continues to attend, gave him the tools to stay sober.

“It is hard, but in the long run, it’s worth it,” Richard said. “If you really give it a chance, it’s worth it.”