Research conducted by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTA) for the year 1997 indicates that 46% of car crashes involved alcohol and 39% of those were fatal crashes. Fatally injured drivers in this category were seven times more likely to have a prior conviction for drunk driving. NHTA projected that drivers with a blood alcohol content over .15% increase the risk of involvement in fatal crashes by 200 times and, if the blood alcohol level is greater than .20%, they are 460 times more likely to be involved in a fatality crash. Drivers with very high blood alcohol levels account for only one per cent of drivers, yet they are implicated in half of all the fatal crashes in the United States, specifically those that occur at night and on the weekends. The same group of drivers is responsible for serious injury, high medical expenses, insurance costs, property damage and increasing costs to the courts.
Approximately 1,200 drunk driving cases are filed in the 52-1 District Court each year. About thirty-six percent of those case are repeat offenders. Initiated on March 5, 2001, Sobriety Court is a specialized docket designed to address the problem posed by repeat drunk drivers. It is based on an adult drug court model with the objective of reducing recidivistic drunk driving. It is characterized by the use of an expedited docket or ëfast trackí case processing system, early identification of the offender and immediate placement in treatment. The community has been involved from the beginning through the members of the Sobriety Court Advisory Board. The Board is composed of individual citizens and community groups, representatives from such organizations as Mothers Against Drunk Driving, Parents of Murdered Children and The Traffic Improvement Association. The role of the Sobriety Court Advisory Board is to advise the court, offer feedback from a community perspective and provide a monitor for continuous improvement.
Each defendant who enters the 72-week program does so voluntarily. Because these individuals give up certain constitutional and privacy rights, the agreement to enter Sobriety Court is based upon a signed contract and a knowing waiver on the record. The sobriety court team reviews cases prior to going into court. The first 36 weeks are rigorous. It is run on a point-based system that measures performance in seven categories. The offender is intensively monitored through weekly probation reporting and daily alcohol/drug testing. All defendants must also attend AA and a weekend treatment program. Since Sobriety Court mandates twice weekly substance abuse counseling, the offender is further monitored through comprehensive treatment progress reports and direct contact of the intensive probation officer with the treatment provider. Not only is probation supervision intense, there is also judicial supervision of the offender at intervals of one to two times a month. The judicial review focuses on the progress of the defendant in treatment, the difficulties faced at home, at work and in the community.
The review session starts with a Sobriety Court team meeting. There the judge, a representative of the office of the prosecutor, a defense advisor, the two intensive probation officers, along with those community volunteers, law enforcement officials and treatment providers who wish to attend, meet and discuss the progress of each defendant. After the team meeting, the judge presides over a Sobriety Court session. Rewards for progress and sanctions for lapses are handed out at these sessions.
Upon successful completion of the first 36 weeks of sobriety, each defendant, in a formal ceremony, graduates to the less regimented form of supervision for an additional 36 weeks. They continue to report to probation, but do not see the judge. They also continue to go to AA and see their alcohol counselor.
The ultimate goal of Sobriety Court is to end a defendant's recidivistic drunk driving by ending their dependence upon drugs and alcohol. To achieve that goal, all individuals within the program are held to a standard of absolute responsibility. As offenders progress in the program and as the judge responds to their behavior through a phased system of sanctions and rewards, the offenders become increasingly responsible for their own behavior.
During the first two years of the program one hundred and eighty-one individuals were accepted. Eighty-five have graduated from the intensive phase, of these, twenty-five have completed the entire program and are no longer on probation. Fifty-six individuals are in the thirty-six week intensive phase. Forty defendants were terminated due to non-compliance. Over the two-year existence of the Sobriety Court only three defendants who were admitted into the program committed a new drunk driving offense. This equates to a recidivism rate of 1.7%. More importantly, none of the individuals who completed this demanding seventy-two week program were rearrested.
These results suggests that this specialized approach to high risk drunk drivers significantly reduces the danger that these individuals will continue to engage in this hazardous behavior. Thus our community is safer.