Most `problem drinkers' don't get post-DWI help

UM report's conclusions may be basis for '06 legislation, some say

September 20, 2005|By Michael Dresser | Michael Dresser,sun reporter

More than half the people who are determined to be "problem drinkers" after a drunken-driving arrest in Maryland are not receiving alcohol-abuse treatment even though those programs are effective in cutting the number of subsequent offenses, according to University of Maryland researchers.

In a report commissioned by the Maryland Alcohol and Drug Abuse Administration, the researchers also found large regional disparities in the percentage of people arrested for driving while intoxicated who are categorized as problem -- as opposed to social -- drinkers. The researchers also found significant differences in the percentage of those charged who undergo treatment.

The report comes less than a month after federal statistics showed a 12 percent increase in Maryland's fatal crashes involving drunken drivers last year. State officials said it could provide a basis for proposed legislation in the General Assembly session that begins in January.

"It would not surprise me at all if there weren't some bills introduced," said Wayne Kempske, deputy director of the alcohol and drug agency.

The study, released this month by the Center for Substance Abuse Research (CESAR) at College Park, compared records of the initial assessments done of people arrested for drunken driving who had been to alcohol-abuse treatment programs. It also looked at the assessment records to see how many drivers had been arrested again.

The study found that statewide, 66 percent of those arrested for drunken driving were categorized by county or private assessment centers as "problem drinkers." But because of differences in how suspects were assessed, the level of those designated as problem drinkers ranged from 49 percent in St. Mary's County to 88 percent in Queen Anne's County.

Of those assessed as problem drinkers, 47 percent entered treatment, according to the study. Of those, almost six in 10 completed the program to which they were initially referred.

The report indicates that the treatment programs are effective in reducing the number of subsequent arrests.

Of the 53 percent who did not get treatment, 19 percent were arrested again in Maryland within nine years. Among those who completed treatment, the rearrest figure 7 percent. Even those who went into a program but did not complete it had fewer than half the arrests of those who went untreated.

The study showed the percentage of problem drinkers who received treatment varied between 36 percent in Montgomery and Worcester counties and 75 percent in Kent.

Amelia M. Arria, an epidemiologist who was the lead researcher in the study, said the data do not explain why people are not going into treatment after DWI arrests. She said she did not have access to records showing how often judges ordered problem drinkers to receive treatment.

Kempske said he believes that offenders who are ordered by a judge to go into treatment are effectively tracked by parole and probation officers. He said the follow-up may be less intensive in cases in which a judge puts a case on hold and refers a defendant to treatment without a formal order.

"It's the informal referrals to treatment that in my opinion are often falling through the cracks," Kempske said.

But Bruce Robinson, a Pikesville defense attorney who has been handling drunken-driving cases for more than a decade, said judges diligently order defendants into treatment -- even first offenders who receive probation before judgment.

Robinson said he doubts the report's conclusion that half of those classified as problem drinkers skip treatment, because the consequences can be severe -- including loss of insurance and driver's license and jail time.

"The judges know exactly what to do, and they're doing it well," he said. "I have grave doubts as to the validity of that study."

But Kempske said the report points to some serious weaknesses in the state's handling of drunken-driving cases.

Del. William A. Bronrott, a leading advocate of tougher drunken-driving laws, said he is concerned about the jurisdictional disparities detailed in the report.

"We need uniform testing and assessment throughout the state," the Montgomery Democrat said.

michael.dresser@baltsun.com

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