DUI Court Is Long on Support, Short on Jail Time
Every Friday, the second floor of Harbor Justice Center in Newport Beach echoes with the curious sound of applause, breaking the somber silence that otherwise pervades these hallways when DUI hearings are in full swing.
The cheering section is in courtroom No. 7, where Judge Carlton P. Biggs is conducting Orange County’s new once-a-week session for repeat drunk drivers. He treats defendants to a raffle, quotes from French essayists and compliments the people who cared enough to get spiffed up for their appearance.
Everyone who shows up gets a round of applause.
Positive reinforcement is a central tenet of Orange County’s DUI court, which opened in October. It is one of only two courts of its kind in California but is one of a growing number nationwide. They’re designed to reduce recidivism among drunk drivers by providing encouragement and strict supervision to help treat addiction rather than imposing jail sentences or fines.
“This is a major change in direction for courts,” Biggs said. “People are starting to realize our traditional approaches don’t work.... I wouldn’t be surprised in years to come to see this approach taken a lot more.”
More than 1.5 million U.S. motorists are arrested each year on suspicion of drinking and driving. In California, 179,663 people were arrested on suspicion of driving under the influence in 2002, according to the latest statistics available from the Department of Motor Vehicles. Alcohol was a factor in 1,416 traffic fatalities and 32,013 injuries that year.
Orange County’s program is being funded for a year through a $1-million grant from the state Office of Traffic Safety, and developed with input from police and the O.C. chapter of Mothers Against Drunk Driving.
The program borrows from the philosophy of special drug courts in the county and elsewhere that have reduced substance abuse by treating addictions rather than punishing defendants with jail time and fines. The biggest difference between the two courts is that the DUI conviction is not erased from graduates’ records.
Drivers with at least two arrests for DUI are eligible. They cannot have prior convictions for violent crimes, weapons or drug charges, or have been involved in a fatal DUI accident.
To qualify, offenders agree to plead guilty to misdemeanor DUI, admit they’re addicted to alcohol and commit to sobriety. They must write an essay, attend Alcoholics Anonymous meetings and be tested several times a week for as long as they’re in the program.
The length of time people are in the program varies. Their progress is monitored by a probation officer and a court-appointed health official. They can be jailed for refusing to be tested or if they drop out of the program.
Biggs, who has also presided over the county’s drug court, opens his DUI sessions with a raffle, giving away movie tickets and other small prizes as a reward to those who show up. He follows with an assortment of quotes, including one from Michel de Montaigne, a French essayist from the 1500s: “The value of life is not in the length of days, but in the use we make of them; a man may live long yet very little.” He wraps up this philosophical interlude with the Nike slogan “Just Do It.”
“The goal is sobriety and to get your life back in order,” Biggs reminds his audience. “I think it’s a very significant goal ... you will reach one day at a time.”
In its first three months, 50 people were accepted into the program. Among them is Mitchel Matthews, 46, of Costa Mesa. He was arrested in August for the third time in two years on a DUI charge. In court, Biggs compliments his personal essay, and for “dressing so nicely.” Biggs tells him he is eligible to proceed to the next phase.
Matthews said alcohol has taken a toll on his life. His last arrest cost him his job at a clinical lab. While he was in jail, he decided to volunteer for the program to take responsibility for his life.
“By the time you get your third DUI, you know you have a problem and you are a menace to society,” Matthews said. “Alcohol has affected everything I’ve done in my life.”
The program is too new to determine how recidivism rates have been affected. There will never be a way of knowing how many people “aren’t dying or being injured by drunk drivers,” Biggs said.
There are an estimated 165 DUI courts or DUI/drug courts across the country, a recent survey by the National Assn. of Drug Court Professionals shows. One of them is in Northern California’s Butte County, a DUI court that has been operating since 1996. A study showed that graduates of the program had about an 18% chance of repeat offenses, compared with 85% for those who went through the regular court system.
“They’re not repeating. And we are also seeing that their kids don’t follow them,” said Butte Superior Court Judge Darrell Stevens, who started the program. “DUI courts are very effective. The idea keeps getting bigger and bigger, because the other way doesn’t work.”
Reidel Post, the executive director of MADD Orange County who helped develop the county’s program, said it’s imperative that all DUI courts be closely monitored to ensure that they offer defendants a fair chance at turning their lives around without sacrificing public safety.
“We want to do everything we can to save lives and injuries caused by driving under the influence,” she said.