Special Reports

DUI court a new approach

I am encouraged by the recent discussions on excessive drinking in the Centre County community. Awareness and vigorous debate are always a predicate to a comprehensive solution. Another component of this discussion should be focused on the alarming trend in drunken driving arrests in our community.

Drunken driving now represents one-third of our entire criminal case load in Centre County. About 85 percent of those arrested in the county are social drinkers who will complete a diversionary program and never repeat the offense. These drivers pose a significant risk to our safety but it is the repeat offender with a blood-alcohol content of 0.15 or greater that poses the greatest public health and safety concern in our community.

Hard-core impaired drivers are not impacted by general deterrence methods, such as public awareness campaigns, or traditional sanctions, such as incarceration. To date, it has been left to the traditional courts and criminal justice system to deal with these hard-core impaired drivers, and it has become clear that the traditional process is not working for these repeat offenders.

Punishment unaccompanied by treatment and accountability is an ineffective deterrence for the repeat offender. The outcome for these offenders is continued dependence on alcohol; for the community, continued peril. A new strategy now exists in Centre County to fight against repeat impaired driving.

DUI court is an accountability court dedicated to changing the behavior of the hard-core repeat offender. The goal of DUI court is to protect public safety by utilizing the highly successful drug court model that uses accountability and long-term treatment. Nationwide studies of DUI courts have shown successful results in a significant reduction in recidivism.

The Centre County DUI court employs all criminal justice stakeholders (judge, prosecutors, defense attorneys, probation, law enforcement and others) coupled with alcohol or drug treatment professionals. This group of professionals constitutes a DUI court team and uses a cooperative approach to systematically change offender behavior.

This approach includes identification and referral of participants early in the legal process to a full continuum of drug and alcohol treatment, incarceration and other corrective and rehabilitative services. Compliance with treatment and other court-mandated requirements is verified by frequent alcohol testing, close community supervision, and ongoing judicial supervision in a nonadversarial court review hearing.

During review hearings, the judge employs a science-based response to participant compliance (or noncompliance) in an effort to further the team’s goal to encourage pro-social, sober behaviors that will prevent future DUI recidivism.

A recent study by the Michigan Supreme Court found that offenders sentenced to traditional sanctions were 19 times more likely to be rearrested for a DUI charge than a DUI court participant. A recent Georgia study reveals that DUI court graduates had a less than 9 percent recidivism rate versus more than 30 percent for traditional courts. One national study says that for every $1 invested in traditional problem-solving courts, $4.78 is saved in the criminal justice and social services systems.

Nearly 450 such courts exist nationwide. With their rapid expansion and proven effectiveness, DUI courts are changing the mindset of criminal justice professionals and affecting how DUI offenders are handled. Treatment with intensive supervision works with this population and promises better long-term outcomes through decreased recidivism.

Judge Bradley P. Lunsford founded and now oversees the DUI court in Centre County.