Monday, December 17, 2007

New DUI weapon unveiled

BELLEFONTE — Centre County's first DUI court could be up and running in the first quarter of 2008 as a pilot program designed not only to punish offenders but to treat the underlying addiction that led to their arrests, Centre County Judge Bradley P. Lunsford said.

Armed with studies and firsthand experience that show “warehousing” repeat DUI offenders in prison doesn’t work, planning is almost completed for the pilot program that will target third-time DUI offenders who have the highest tier of blood-alcohol contents — at least a .16 percent.

The announcement of the DUI court comes as the State College Police Department gets close, for the second consecutive year, to setting a dubious record.

Borough police have arrested 460 people for DUI as of Friday and are on pace to easily beat the record 484 DUI arrests in 2006, said State College police Lt. Dana Leonard.

At the same point in 2006, officers had made 436 DUI arrests, he said.

It’s an even worse picture countywide, according to statistics compiled by the office of Centre County District Attorney Michael Madeira. Last year, Madeira’s office prosecuted a record 850 DUIs.

While police attack DUI on the streets of Centre County, Lunsford, Madeira and a team of others in the justice system say the county’s first DUI court will fight the potentially deadly crime in a new way — with both punishment and rehabilitation.

“We welcome any innovative strategies, and this DUI court would be one of them, which would address these underlying issues, which would be addiction to alcohol or any other substance,” Leonard said.

The effort led by Lunsford would create a court that would not simply jail then release offenders but provide them “with the tools to maintain sobriety through judicial intervention, intensive supervision and substance abuse treatment,” according to the effort’s mission statement.

Rather than spend a mandatory year in jail, third-time offenders would do 90 days in jail and then undergo in-home detention and intensive monitoring along with counseling aimed at ending their substance abuse and addiction.

But this program will be much more difficult for offenders than serving a year at the correctional facility, Lunsford said.

“This is a much different program than going to jail and getting work release,” Lunsford said. “It’d be far easier to do the jail time. This is a very vigorous program, with intense therapeutic intervention and intense supervision.”

The pilot effort will operate early next year if federal, state and local funding comes through as county officials expect, Lunsford said.

The annual cost of the DUI court is estimated at $275,000, which would include hiring an additional probation officer for the program and cover counseling and therapeutic costs. Federal and state grants are available — both governmental levels advocate such courts — and costs also will be offset by fees imposed upon participants, the judge said.

The current practice of jailing third-time DUI offenders for a year doesn’t seem to be working, experts said.

“Essentially what we’re doing is warehousing these people in the Centre County Correctional Facility for a cost of about $60 per day,” Lunsford said. “And we’re not doing anything to address the underlying problem. This will really be one of the first attempts by a justice system to address the underlying problem, rather than just punish for the offense.”

The judge cites studies that show recidivism rates for third-time DUI offenders is about 85 percent. By comparison, the likelihood of repeat offenses by people who have gone through a DUI court is about 15 to 25 percent.

Madeira said the court likely will handle about 30 of 1,000 DUI offenses. His office does not keep statistics on how many third-time offenders are dealt with in a year, he said, but added DUIs overall make up at least a third of his case-load.

“They’ll have to do a whole lot more than sit in a jail cell,” Madeira said. “They’ll have to make changes.”

Plans still being finalized call for the DUI court offenders to spend 90 days in jail, followed by nine months of in-home detention. During that time, the offenders not only will have to wear ankle bracelets to monitor their movements but will be required to take in-home breathalyzer tests at specific times. The results of the tests, along with a photo taken of the offender as he or she takes the test, will be instantly transmitted back to a monitoring center, said Tom Young, chief probation officer for Centre County.

After the period of home detention ends, the offender will be required to wear an alcohol-detecting ankle bracelet, which monitors for alcohol use around the clock, Young said. There also will be requirements for counseling, treatment and frequent random drug and alcohol tests, all tracked by the court.

While this may be a therapeutic court with reduced jail time, Lunsford and Madeira stressed it will be far more difficult for offenders to go through, as it will force them to face and overcome their addiction.

“I’m not in this for a feel-good social response,” Madeira said. “I want to identify those who could harm someone because they have a problem. If it prevents another criminal case, another death ... that’s a step in the right direction.”

Young said the DUI court should prove a success, so long as it is staffed accordingly. His office, as it currently is staffed, could not handle a DUI court.

“It needs to be properly staffed because it is an intensive program,” Young said.

It’s also, he said, a program with great potential. There is a reason the court will start with three-time DUI offenders, he said.

“We want to start slow so we can do it right,” Young said. “Then we’re going to work back toward the second-time offenders. We can go wherever we want with this as far as expanding it.”

Centre County Chief Public Defender David Crowley also provided input for the creation of the DUI court.

“It’s at least worth a look, a pilot program, and see where we are a year from now,” Crowley said.

Pete Bosak can be reached at 235-3928.


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