Trying something new: DUI Treatment Court

The front cover of today’s Chicago Tribune had a story about a DUI treatment court in Peoria.  The program is for people who have been charged with a second or third DUI.  They are required to wear a SCRAM bracelet or go for alcohol testing twice a day.

The SCRAM bracelet, known in the industry as Secure Continuous Remote Alcohol Monitor or in slang as the “Lindsay Lohan bracelet,” is a plastic device about the size of a cigarette pack strapped above the ankle of a repeat drunken driver. Every half-hour, SCRAM screens for alcohol in the wearer’s perspiration.

The bracelet is the central component of a court program that begins when a motorist is arrested for DUI in Peoria County and is screened for alcohol addiction tendencies. If those are evident or if a motorist has been convicted of a second or third DUI, they move to DUI treatment court.

For a year to 18 months, an offender agrees to abstain from alcohol and drugs; wear the SCRAM device and/or undergo rigorous, random alcohol and drug testing; and attend treatment sessions and therapy groups such as Alcoholics Anonymous.

If the participant drinks alcohol, ingests drugs or misses treatment or therapy sessions, he or she often pays with a stint in jail. If participants follow the regimen, they are complimented along the way — much like Kelley’s avuncular exchange with Duncan, who is close to finishing the program successfully.

The most powerful aspect of the DUI treatment court experience was hearing other people’s accounts of beating their alcohol and drug habits, Duncan said.

“To hear other people who opened up, saying that they need help and things like that,” Duncan said, “it made me think if they can be honest with themselves, why can’t I?”

An outgrowth of the drug treatment court model started in the late 1980s in Florida, the first DUI court was created in 1994 near Las Cruces, N.M. Peoria County established its court around 2005, after Kelley’s predecessor, Rebecca Steenrod, attended a conference where experts noted that the drug court protocol worked for DUI cases and obtained a state grant to get the court started.

As of June 2012, there were 208 courts dedicated exclusively to DUI treatment, the National Center for DWI Courts says. Research suggests they work.

An Arizona study from the late 1990s to the early 2000s showed that 3.6 percent of DUI treatment court “graduates” had gotten arrested for DUI two years after completing the program, compared with 5.4 percent of standard probation graduates. A NHTSA multiyear study of DUI treatment courts in Georgia found that “graduates” had a recidivism rate 38 to 65 percent lower than offenders in traditional programs, and a 2007 Michigan study concluded that DUI courts there had a significant effect in reducing recidivism, drug and alcohol use and criminal justice costs.

But apart from the salaries of the judge and a probation officer, funding for Peoria County’s DUI court largely hinges on participants’ ability to pay for services, and that presents problems. Bracelets are available to those who can pay $5 to $22 per day for one, which often leaves indigent hard-core drunken drivers with no choice but jail. Treatment also can be difficult to obtain for those unable to pay.

I have previously endorsed this idea before (click here to read), even though I am sure that many of my clients would vehemently object to being placed in such a court and being required to wear a SCRAM bracelet or have to report to a probation office twice a day to take a breath or urine test.  Certainly, doing so is embarrassing, inconvenient and expensive.  And I am concerned that DUI treatment court might be pushed on people who really don’t need it.

But I think a DUI treatment court is a good idea because a DUI arrest is not so much a crime as much as it is a symptom of a person’s alcohol abuse or dependency.

For example, I have represented people who have gone through a bad period and picked up multiple DUIs in a short period of time.  This can mean that they can end up as a convicted felon and barred from ever getting a license again, even if they can later prove years or decades of sobriety.

So I am all for a different approach, one that treats repeat drunk drivers not as hardened criminals, but as people with an addiction that has impaired their ability to control their actions, but with help, can regain control of their life and become productive citizens. But this can’t happen so long as we permanently mark them with a “scarlet letter” that keeps them from being able to legally drive, work, support their families and develop positive self-esteem.

I think it would be better to pull these people out of the criminal system and instead give them an intensive alcohol and drug use treatment program with the possibility of avoiding a criminal record or permanent license revocation.

What do you think?


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