3 counties get state grant for DWI courts

Drunken-driving programs to follow drug court model

October 06, 2004|By Laura Cadiz | Laura Cadiz,SUN STAFF

Anne Arundel, Harford and Howard counties are splitting a $167,000 state grant to create Maryland's first specialized court programs for repeat impaired-driving offenders.

The counties - which were chosen by the State Highway Administration primarily because they have drug courts - are beginning the drunken-driving court alternative to the normal legal process. It requires offenders to participate in intense treatment and judicial supervision.

Harford and Howard counties will open their DWI courts in the coming months, while Anne Arundel has started accepting participants.

The DWI (driving while impaired) courts will be fashioned after the rehabilitation-focused drug courts that have been growing in numbers nationwide.

Participants plead guilty to an impaired-driving offense, may face jail time and would have to appear before a judge probably twice a month, said Gray Barton, executive director of the Maryland Drug Treatment Court Commission. They would also be subjected to random alcohol-use testing, have to attend group counseling and support group sessions, and go to school or retain a job, he said.

"It's tougher than jail," he said. "Getting a job, getting clean, getting their GED, that's hard."

Barton said the opportunities for sobriety and eligibility for a shorter probation because of the program's intense judicial supervision are expected to draw participants.

DWI courts have been building on the accomplishments of drug courts, which have a proven success rate, Barton said.

A study of Anne Arundel's drug court released this year found that it had a graduation rate of 54.7 percent, 6.7 percent higher than the national average; the program's participants also were rearrested 18.8 percent fewer times for property crimes and 73.7 percent fewer times for crimes against people, according to the study by NPC Research Inc. of Portland, Ore.

"I really attribute [the success] to the court and the accountability it holds for the participant," Barton said.

Nationwide, there are 1,183 drug courts with hundreds more in the planning stages, according to the National Drug Court Institute.

In the past five years, DWI courts have begun emerging, Barton said. The institute reports 42 DWI/drug courts operating nationwide.

Anne Arundel, Howard and Harford have not finalized the criteria that will be used to admit DWI court participants into their programs, which will last about a year. Howard and Harford are considering allowing in people who are third-time drunken-driving offenders; Anne Arundel likely will also admit people in that range.

Anne Arundel County District Court has started hearing cases in its drug court for offenders also charged with drunken driving, said Janet Ward, the county's drug treatment court coordinator. A DWI court will start reviewing people with just impaired-driving offenses once the county develops criteria for admitting about 40 participants this month, she said.

In Howard County, the DWI court is set to open in January and will handle 15 to 30 people between it and the drug court that began this summer.

"This may be for people who maybe have tried some rehab program and/or maybe can't afford some of the other programs," Howard District Judge Louis A. Becker III said. "They are people who either hit bottom or are tired of the lifestyle."

Harford County District Court is aiming to begin operating its DWI court within a few months and will accept about 20 people, said Joseph Ryan, manager for Harford County's Office of Drug Control Policy.

"Obviously, we have to try something new because what we've been doing ain't working," he said. "Yeah, we can put them in jail for three months, six months, a year, but when they go out, they continue the pattern of unsafe behavior."

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