Study shows gaps in DWI assessment

Drivers with similar cases may be treated with different regimens, report finds

December 02, 2005|By ELIZABETH COE | ELIZABETH COE,CAPITAL NEWS SERVICE

On the morning of Feb. 25, Sam Burke awoke in a holding cell. After a long night of drinking at a bar in Towson, he had been pulled over for speeding on Joppa Road, failed his sobriety test, refused to take a Breathalyzer and was arrested for drinking while impaired by alcohol.

"I wasn't that drunk," he said. "I had just gotten Taco Bell, and I was speeding home to eat it."

Burke was facing hundreds of dollars in fines and the prospect of not having a driver's license for the next 45 days. So the 23-year-old Perry Hall resident called a lawyer, who advised him to get an alcohol assessment at a DWI treatment center and register for alcohol education classes in the hope it would make him look better in court.

Burke's decision put him in the company of more than 8,000 drivers assessed at alcohol treatment centers each year in Maryland. But while the assessment is a key step in determining the need for alcohol treatment, results vary widely across the state, depending on the county, the center or the income level of the offender, according to a report by the Center for Substance Abuse Research at the University of Maryland, College Park.

Burke, for example, was assessed at Chesapeake Counseling Services in Baltimore County, which characterized him as a "social" drinker. But because he had refused to take a Breathalyzer test, he was enrolled in the 26-hour course for "problem" drinkers.

He finished 26 weeks of alcohol classes at Chesapeake Counseling Services. Baltimore County Circuit Judge Dana Levitz sentenced him to three years of probation and a fine of $80 a month until his probation period ends.

Columbia resident David Lee, like Burke, refused to take a Breathalyzer test on the night of his DWI arrest in Howard County in April, and like Burke was assessed as a "social" drinker. But Lee was required to enroll only in the 12-hour alcohol education class.

Lee got his assessment and treatment at Counseling Resources of Ellicott City, while Burke got his in Essex.

The differences in treatment regimens recommended for drivers with similar cases have concerned state and private substance abuse treatment professionals.

Peter F. Luongo, director of the Maryland Alcohol and Drug Abuse Administration, said he was surprised at the results of the study, especially by the degree of difference county to county and by the number of people who aren't getting the level of treatment they need.

"Overall, it shows that this way of identifying people and moving them into treatment centers is not working the way it is supposed to work," he said. "It would work better if there was a standard assessment and closer monitoring of people to make sure that people who are supposed to go to treatment do so."

In Maryland, 66 percent of DWI offenders are determined to be "problem" drinkers, but that percentage varies widely by county, ranging from 49 percent in Garrett County to 88 percent in Queen Anne's County.

According to the study, in Anne Arundel County the percentage assessed as problem drinkers is 66 percent; in Baltimore County, 75 percent; in Howard County, 56 percent; in Montgomery County, 55 percent; and in Kent County, 84 percent.

Amelia M. Arria, one of the authors of the report, said the method for assigning offenders as "problem" versus "social" drinkers, which determines the level of treatment needed, varies widely.

Most centers use tests that measure how much a person drinks, but they use different ones. "The assessment process is really center-specific," Arria said. "When they're not doing the same tests, it's hard to build policy on drunk driving."

"Social" drinkers are supposed to enroll in a "social" drinkers' alcohol education course, which consists of 12 hours of group instruction. "Problem" drinkers are supposed to take a 26-hour course and may also attend separate counseling sessions.

Many people choose to have their assessment before going to court, but alcohol assessment and education may be required as a condition of probation after conviction for DWI.

Thomas Benner, former DWI coordinator for the Maryland Alcohol and Drug Abuse Administration who is now director of Addiction Recovery Services in Columbia, called the assessment process "confusing for everyone."

"It was a problem then, and it is still a problem today," he said.

Elizabeth Coe writes for the Capital News Service.

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