Howard court officials are looking into the possibility of creating an intensive, specialized court program for repeat impaired-driving offenders in the county.
Discussion of the DWI-court concept comes as the county works, with limited funding, to implement a pilot adult drug court program for 10 to 15 defendants in Howard District Court this summer. It also comes amid a new national emphasis on impaired-driving courts as a way to help reduce drunken driving.
"There's a feeling here because of the overall numbers here there would be a large justification ... with repeat offenders," said Howard District Judge Louis A. Becker III, one of two judges heading the county's drug-court planning team.
A cursory look at Howard statistics shows that alcohol is a greater problem "volumewise" than drugs, Becker said.
How a DWI (driving-while-intoxicated) court might fit in with the planned drug court - whether it would be part of the same court or have a separate docket - is unknown, he said. The population charged with alcohol vs. drug offenses and the course of treatment recommended tend to be different, officials said. And discussion of the concept is in the early stages.
Although communities nationwide have jumped at the chance to open drug courts - there are about 1,100, and more are in the planning stages - fewer than 70 courts were focusing on impaired driving as of last fall, according to a report prepared by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.
Maryland, which has nine drug courts and 12 more preparing to open or under study, has no impaired-driving courts, said Gray Barton, executive director of the Maryland Drug Treatment Court Commission.
Should Howard decide to start a DWI court, Barton, who was involved in the creation of one in Richland County, Ohio, said his office would closely watch its implementation.
The Richland County court came on the heels of a felony DWI law that targeted offenders with four impaired-driving arrests in six years but did not originally include jail time, said Barton and Ohio Common Pleas Judge James DeWeese, who oversees the county's DWI court. The law has since been amended, he said.
Initially skeptical that any program could help an offender who still drove drunk despite jail terms and treatment, DeWeese said he has since been convinced of its effectiveness after watching defendants improve their lives.
In the Richland County court, offenders must go through treatment and appear before DeWeese once a month. He said he makes defendants a promise early on: "Alcohol and car equal prison."
"I've just seen people turn their lives around in every way," DeWeese said. " ... It has produced enough results to convince me of the value of intensive intervention programs."
In Howard, the focus of officials, until now, has been on the creation of an intensive, treatment-focused drug court. And while the county was unsuccessful last year in its bid for a $500,000 federal grant designated for creating drug courts, plans to start a scaled-back version of the concept using more than $40,000 in federal block-grant funds are on track, Becker said.
But recent news that the traffic safety administration is pushing the DWI court concept and that the grant program that provides big money for drug courts would accept applications that target impaired driving caught the eye of Howard officials.
Becker recently asked the county's drinking-driver monitors to look at their caseloads and compile statistics about offenders.
Becker stressed that plans are far from definite. While members of the drug-court planning team are hoping to reapply for the federal grant this year, officials still need to talk to the key players in the county, he said.
"I think it would be a great thing for Howard County," said K. Frank Turban, a Howard monitor working on the statistics. "This puts more focus on people who are public safety threats. This is the habitual alcoholic."