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60 repeat DUI offenders successfully complete year in Akron Municipal Court’s treatment program

The only detail Doug remembers clearly of his drunken drive home from a friend’s house last year is being arrested at the end of it.

It wasn’t the first time Doug had gotten caught behind the wheel after a night of drinking. But thanks to a treatment-based program at Akron Municipal Court, it was his last.

Last month, Doug became one of 60 repeat DUI offenders to successfully complete a rigorous year on the court’s specialized DUI docket. The program, which blends personalized treatment and corrective action, helped him find the will to change his life in a way that traditional probation models have failed.

“All I can say is finish the program,” Doug told a courtroom full of other program participants last month after receiving his certificate of completion. “It seems daunting, but keep going because it’s worth it.”

In a state that averages more than 70,000 new DUI cases a year, the Ohio Supreme Court has acknowledged that repeat offenders might need more help than most jurisdictions provide. For the past several years, the Supreme Court has encouraged jurisdictions to establish DUI Courts — specialized dockets offering intensive treatment programs, special attention and even holistic therapy for problem drinkers repeatedly in trouble with the law.

So far six Ohio courts — in Marion, Richland, Clermont, Butler, Athens and Summit counties — have established DUI dockets, paid for by federal grant money. Clermont’s was the first, started about three years ago. The model is still being studied to determine its effectiveness.

But Melissa Knopp, manager of the Supreme Court’s specialized-dockets section, said the court is hopeful that treating the underlying causes of alcohol abuse will dramatically reduce recidivism and give offenders a real shot at recovery from their addictions.

“Our goal is to look at the whole person, instead of just the little piece that is the offense they committed,” Knopp said. “We want to determine what the offender needs to become a productive member of society and stop the revolving door into the jailhouse.”

Minimum sentences for first-time DUI cases in Ohio are predominantly punitive — license suspension, fines and the threat of being forced to use yellow DUI license plates. Offenders spend three days in jail or in an alternative three-day alcohol-awareness program.

Judges can order treatment for alcohol abuse. But treatment is not mandatory until an offender earns three DUI convictions in six years.

Giving up alcohol also is an increasingly common requirement of probation in drunken-driving cases. Probation officers and judges who are tough on drunken drivers say the sobriety requirement of probation is necessary to protect society from the poor decisions of problem drinkers.

But offenders say it is no small feat to go cold-turkey in a society that embraces alcohol use in many social contexts — ballgames, cookouts, concerts and celebrations. And defense attorneys who have watched hundreds of clients fall off the wagon say some probation departments are so impersonal and overworked that offenders are most likely to fail.

Currently, seven probation officers handle nearly 600 DUI probation cases for the Cleveland Municipal Court. And in Cleveland, anyone on probation for any crime, regardless of whether alcohol was involved in the offense, must abstain from drinking.

Deputy Chief Probation Officer Dean Jenkins said building rapport with offenders is important to developing their sense of accountability. But heavy caseloads and officers’ other responsibilities limit face time with probationers.

Officers run records checks on offenders every 60 days, searching for new offenses in other jurisdictions. And the department has a zero- tolerance policy. Probationers are immediately hauled before a judge upon verification that they have consumed alcohol while on probation, Jenkins said.

Matt, a 34-year-old tattoo artist, was first arrested for DUI in 2002, but the charge was pleaded down to a misdemeanor traffic violation. His second conviction, two years later in Cleveland, earned him a year of probation, during which he was ordered to abstain from drinking altogether.

Matt, who first tasted beer at age 5 and was a full-blown alcoholic before he even reached high school, attended a three-day drunken-driving awareness retreat and dropped into a handful of Alcoholics Anonymous meetings.

But it wasn’t enough to undermine the temptation. For Matt — and countless other offenders like him — staying out of trouble meant staying sober only long enough for a brief monthly meeting with a Cleveland probation officer.

Matt eventually recognized his self-destructive behavior and has been sober for nearly a year-and-a-half. But he said court probation departments contributed little to his success.

Several DUI offenders, who have requested anonymity for this story, said they met with Cleveland probation officers once a month during their probation, and each meeting lasted only a few minutes.

“It became easy for me to cheat the system,” one recovering alcoholic told fellow Alcoholics Anonymous members at a recent meeting. “It was a matter of making sure my nights out drinking didn’t conflict with the days I was supposed to check in with probation.”

And when an offender fails at abstinence, the court’s usual recourse is to impose jail time — a sanction that ignores the social and psychological problems at the core of alcohol abuse, said defense attorney Mark Gardner.

“It seems all we have is money to jail people,” Gardner said. “But we should be developing programs that both hold offenders responsible for their choices and explore why the person is drinking to begin with.”

That’s where DUI Courts come in, said Knopp, manager of the Supreme Court’s specialized-dockets section.

The idea spun off from the long-running Drug Court model, which Knopp said has markedly reduced recidivism in drug offenders in 72 Ohio jurisdictions, including Cleveland.

Akron Municipal Court, which began its DUI Court program in 2007, boasts a 97 percent retention rate. Only three of the 60 graduates were arrested again for drunken driving.

The program, consisting of five phases, takes about a year to complete. Like traditional probation, it requires abstinence from alcohol and participants are outfitted for an anklet that monitors blood alcohol level and alerts the court of violations.

But unlike the traditional approach, participants must develop and adhere to a recovery plan, regularly attend 12-step program meetings, attend frequent treatment and group sessions, keep journals and complete projects that show critical thinking about their addictions.

Participants, who in many cases check in with probation officers and judges weekly, are both rewarded for reaching milestones and sanctioned when they slip up.

Akron Municipal Judges Kathryn Michael and Annalisa Stubbs-Williams meet regularly with probation officers to prep for the week’s DUI docket. Probation officer Matthew Esterle, who is known to devote hours at a time to one client, provides the judges with detailed progress reports and recommendations for their next steps in the program.

Doug, the most recent DUI Court graduate, credits his sobriety to that same kind of personal attention, a compassionate probation officer and the close supervision that kept him honest.

“Every aspect of the program played a role in my success,” Doug said. “But most importantly was the way they treated me. No one ever said, ‘You’re just a drunk, you’re stuck that way.’ Instead, they said, ‘Let’s figure out why you make the decisions you do.’ Everybody was supportive. Everybody cared.”

source: Plain Dealer

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