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Getting drunk drivers off roads a costly, complex problem

Mark says he is learning how to “live life on life’s terms.”

After two drunken driving convictions and two marijuana possession convictions, the 34-year-old father of four is learning that it is time to grow up and make better choices. He’s learning how in an intensive DWI/Drug Court under the close supervision of McLennan County Court-at-Law Judge Mike Freeman, probation officers, counselors and fellow defendants in the program.

Mark says he is lucky to get this extra chance, especially with recent intoxication manslaughter trials that ended in prison terms grabbing headlines and raising public awareness about the tragedy often associated with drinking and driving.

“When I think about those cases or hear something about a drunk driver, I just think, a few years ago that could have been me,” Mark said. “If I have taken anything away from this it is that I don’t have to make the choices that I made, that I can live life on life’s terms and if I take everything that I have learned in this program and practice it, I will be OK.”

Mark, a packaging plant employee who asked that his real name not be used so his wife would not be embarrassed, was raised by his mother, who worked two jobs to make ends meet for him and his younger brother. When he got older, despite his mother’s teachings, he started smoking pot and drinking. Both led him to jail.

“I paid $10 for a bag of weed, and it cost me about $3,000. It was an expensive lesson,” he said.

One that didn’t quite sink in. Not until a second marijuana bust, more probation time and two DWI arrests, both coming on New Year’s Eve a couple of years apart. He got probation for those, too, and was two months away from being discharged on his last case when his probation was revoked because he got behind on court costs and fees.

That ultimately led him to Freeman’s DWI/Drug Court, which combines intensive supervision, more frequent substance abuse testing, counseling, faith-based motivation and principles of Alcoholics Anonymous.

Working the program into his busy schedule was hard, Mark said. He was working 12-hour shifts at times, picking his kids up from school and sleeping when he could.

“I was really bitter for the first two weeks I was in this program because I was like, ‘They are going to nail me. There is no way I can do this.’ But when I sat down and prioritized and thought about it and got with family members, my mom and wife, and we just worked out a system and everything just became easy.”

Freeman said Mark has made great progress in the program. He should be released from probation in about six months.

Larry Courtney, a courthouse security deputy and pastor of Mt. Pleasant Baptist Church, has known Mark and his family for 25 years.

“He is an example of someone who made a mistake,” Courtney said of Mark. “We have criminals and we have people who make mistakes. He made a mistake, a case of poor judgment.”

Mark said he is learning that it is all about making the right choices.

“I tell my kids pretty bluntly that Dad screwed up enough for all of us. I have taken enough money out of this family because I have had to pay for my mistakes, and I don’t want them to go through that. I just try to keep an open relationship with them so if they need to talk to me, we can talk about anything.”

Teran Yaklin, a licensed master social worker at the DePaul Center in Waco, such stories of repeated offenses aren’t unusual. Strict penalties against drunken driving make some people think twice about getting behind the wheel while intoxicated. They are people who are not dependent on alcohol but rather occasionally drink to excess. The issue for them is simply modifying their behavior to what is safe and expected, she said.

But for people who have an alcohol addiction, laws against drunken driving have little to no effect, Yaklin said. Such people know driving drunk is dangerous. They are either in denial about being intoxicated when they drive or they can’t stop themselves from doing it despite a desire not to, she said.

“For people who are addicts, external boundaries don’t mean a whole lot,” said Yaklin, who coordinates a program that provides inpatient detoxification and intensive outpatient treatment to people with chemical dependency. “. . . So many times I hear them talking about (getting a DWI) like it happens randomly to people, like getting struck by lightning.”

Addicts can change only if they realize they have a disease and decide they want to manage it, Yaklin said. Legal trouble can help spur that realization. But it often takes a mix of problems, including struggles at work and home, to really get their attention, she said.

A major barrier to people getting treatment is the prevalent belief that alcohol dependency is a behavior problem, Yaklin said. That mind-set causes addicts to feel a lot of guilt and shame, and that in turn fuels their urge to drink, she said.

“I think the minute we start looking at it as a disease instead of a behavioral problem, people are much more apt to seek treatment, admit they have a problem,” she said. “Right now it has that stigma that you’re a bad person.”

As for what can be done to keep people from getting addicted to alcohol in the first place, Yaklin said it all boils down to education. Specifically, she said, high school students need to be told that some people are more prone to becoming addicts than others and, unfortunately, there is no way to know which category they fit in. Many teens don’t understand that, she said.

Reita Hill, grants administrator for the Texas chapter of Mothers Against Drunk Driving, agreed that education is key. But the organization would also like to see stricter enforcement of current laws.

Many law enforcement agencies don’t have enough officers to dedicate a lot of time to watching for drunken drivers, Hill said. Aggravating that problem is that the paperwork required for a drunken driving arrest usually takes several hours to complete, causing some officers to not aggressively pursue enforcement, she said.

Similarly, the Texas Alcoholic Beverage Commission doesn’t have enough agents to do repeated stings at stores that sell alcohol to minors, Hill said. Under state law, such places can be shut down if they are caught three times in two years. But the chances are slim of TABC having enough manpower to conduct multiple sting operations at the same place in that time period, she said.

If citizens want to get serious about stopping alcohol-related tragedies, they have to agree to fund more officers, she said.

MADD also pushes for expanding existing punishments to more offenders, Hill said. The group would like ignition interlock systems to be mandatory for everyone who gets a DWI.

Such systems are similar to having a breathalyzer installed in a vehicle’s dashboard. Drivers must breath into the device, and the vehicle won’t start unless their blood-alcohol level is within certain limits.

Use of the devices has lowered drunken driving incidents in other states, Hill said. In Texas, judges are supposed to order the use of the devices — paid for by the offender — after a second DWI offense, but not all do, she said. MADD also advocates longer sentences for people who kill someone while driving drunk, Hill said.

Locally, Hill said she has been heartened to see that prosecutors are taking more alcohol-related crimes to juries.

“They are beginning to hold people accountable, which they haven’t done before,” she said. “. . . I remember a few years back I felt lucky if we were getting a five-year sentence (in McLennan County) and now we’re getting the maximum (on some cases). I think it’s just the community finally saying enough is enough.”
source: Waco Tribune-Herald

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