DWI Corner
March-April 2009

A DWI Court’s success in a small county

DWI Courts can offer alternatives for dealing with repeat DWI offenders, even in a small jurisdiction.

Elisha Nix

Assistant County Attorney in Brown County

Bodie Wright went from being an alcoholic who drank 30 beers a day to a recovering addict who has been sober for nine months. His transition away from alcoholism started in the Brown County DWI Court, and he now wants to become a counselor for other alcohol addicts.

Bodie began drinking when he was 14 years old. Now, at age 36, he looks back on the last 20 years with regret. After driving while intoxicated for years, Bodie was finally arrested for his second DWI and agreed to enter the DWI Court. The program proved to be a rough road for him. He was the first participant, and he was still struggling with whether he truly wanted to be sober. However, through in-patient treatment and the DWI Court program, Bodie has begun living without dependence on alcohol, and he’s no longer a danger on our community’s streets.

After his graduation from the DWI Court in December, there are eight participants left in the program, many with years of alcohol addiction still to overcome. But they—and those of us who work with them to stay with the program—are hopeful.

A bit of background

Bodie’s situation and similar ones prompted Brown County officials to start a DWI Court. However, as a small county (our population is just under 40,000), we had to explore what resources we could put into a DWI Court and whether such an undertaking could be successful.

Our office has five prosecutors, with one covering the misdemeanor docket. In 2008, about 1,000 misdemeanor cases were filed in the county court at law. Of those misdemeanors, we had 125 DWIs of which 22 were DWI seconds. Even though our county and office are small, drinking and driving is as much a challenge for us as for larger counties. As in bigger jurisdictions, Brown County has traffic crashes, injuries, and fatalities caused by intoxicated drivers. We also face the universal community problems caused by alcohol abuse, such as violence and job loss.

In response to the danger intoxicated drivers present to the community at large, Brown County founded a DWI Court about a year ago. Ours is similar to DWI Courts in large cities throughout Texas; however, living in a small county allows us to focus on each defendant in unique ways and see tangible results from the program.

What is a DWI Court?

Our DWI Court is structured not just to punish defendants but also to help them overcome their alcohol problems and become a contributing part of society. We recognize that probation will pose unique problems for alcoholics, so we developed specific probation requirements, sanctions, and incentives that address those problems.

Rehabilitation is our goal. While defendants must comply with all of the traditional probation requirements, they also have numerous additional rules that they must follow. The requirements are initially set high and then scaled back as each participant successfully completes phases of the program.

In phase one, participants must attend alcohol-related counseling twice a week, meet with a probation officer weekly, and attend a DWI Court meeting each Friday. After successful completion of phase one, participants move on to phase two, whose structure is basically the same but requires only bi-weekly meetings. In phase three, meetings are scaled back based on individual needs; defendants will still have counseling and probation appointments bi-weekly but may be allowed, in the absence of any problems, to reduce their court appearances to once a month.

The DWI Court is staffed by the county court at law judge and court coordinator, a probation officer, a counselor, and two representatives from the county attorney’s office. One local defense attorney is appointed on all cases identified as appropriate for DWI Court; having one appointed defense attorney, a probation officer, and a counselor on staff helps the court focus on rehabilitation, while the prosecutors ensure that community safety is maintained. Each member of the staff is present for each court session.

The court has a unique ability to impose sanctions on participants. The sanctions are designed to adapt to specific situations. We expect that in a program for recovering alcoholics, not every participant will complete the program without any violations. However, the increased oversight allows us to impose sanctions quickly that will both punish infractions and encourage future compliance through incentives. For participants who comply, a portion of their fines are waived as they complete different phases of the program. Additionally, the probation officer assists participants in looking for work, settling housing problems, and resolving many other issues created or exacerbated by their alcoholism. These incentives encourage participants to maintain their sobriety.

Bodie’s story demonstrates how important a focus on rehabilitation can be with repeat DWI offenders. Bodie had a severe drinking problem, yet he had been caught driving while intoxicated only twice. Through a year of struggles, the DWI Court was able to teach Bodie that he could stay sober and drive without drinking.

How do defendants get involved in DWI Court?

Bodie, and other defendants like him, are identified by the county attorney’s office as potential candidates for the program. During intake, prosecutors flag cases where a DWI defendant has a history of charges for driving while intoxicated, public intoxication, driving under the influence, or other alcohol-related offenses.

Once a defendant has been chosen as a potential candidate, our office presents him to the DWI Court staff for consideration. The staff looks at a defendant’s age, county of residence, previous criminal history (including whether the defendant has committed violent crimes), reputation within the community for alcohol abuse, whether the defendant has a drug problem, and pending cases in Brown and other counties.

Once the DWI Court staff has agreed that a defendant would make a good participant in the program, the defendant is scheduled for a special arraignment date where he is arraigned as usual but is also asked to stay and observe one DWI Court session. After the observation, the defendant is offered a chance to discuss the specific DWI Court requirements with the defense attorney and prosecutor.

Working out a plea agreement for DWI Court can be tricky. Although the DWI Court staff sees that this particular defendant has an alcohol addiction, the defendant may not recognize the problem yet; he may be unwilling to accept the rigors that would be imposed in the program. To ensure voluntary participation, we always offer an alternative plea offer that does not include DWI Court to potential candidates; doing so ensures that everyone who enters the program is committed to a year of intensive supervision. (Generally, the court is set up to require one year’s probation, but for some defendants who have unique problems, that recommendation is extended to two years.)

Once a participant enters and successfully completes the DWI Court program, we have a special ceremony to mark his graduation. As our first graduate, Bodie was not only able to celebrate with us, but he also addressed the other participants to tell them how different he was after one short year. He expressed his appreciation to the DWI Court for the help it provided during that time.

Not all of the DWI Court participants have successfully completed the program. Two defendants have already dropped out, and we filed motions to revoke their probation. When dropouts are caught and returned, we do not reinstate them in the program.

What happens during DWI Court sessions?

Before the twice-weekly open court session, the DWI Court staff meets behind closed doors to receive detailed information from the probation officer and counselor. The staff discusses potential candidates for the program, sanctions and rewards for current participants, and any practical problems or issues that have come up. A large portion of my duties as a prosecutor arise during the DWI Court staff meeting, where my role is to offer suggestions. As our program expands and we encounter new development issues, I generally provide suggestions for improving the program and suggest potential sanctions for defendants who violate their conditions. For a county our size, these meetings generally take no more than 45 minutes.

The DWI Court staff meetings are led by Judge Frank Griffin, who has served in criminal law since 1981. He feels that DWI Court is the best of many worlds:  It provides a third option—other than jail or regular probation—for repeat DWI offenders; it allows defendants to support their families and work on recovery; and it monitors them more closely than traditional probation, thus ensuring that the community remains safe.

In the open court sessions, the judge receives reports from probation and counselors about the participants and interacts individually with each one. All participants are required to attend to provide a measure of public accountability. Sanctions and incentives may be announced at this meeting. If a participant has successfully completed a week of sobriety, all of the court staff, other participants, and visitors publicly applaud. However, if the court has deemed sanctions appropriate, the sanctions are announced and the participant receives no applause. For a DWI Court of our size, this session usually takes about 30 minutes.

As a prosecutor in the DWI Court, my goals are to ensure community safety and help the program develop. I propose sanctions as needed, recommend that defendants with an alcohol problem have a chance to participate, make recommendations to the court about the administrative questions, serve as a liaison between the court and law enforcement, and promote the DWI Court to the public. I also make sure that defense attorneys clearly understand the requirements of the DWI Court and the benefits of participating.

Why should a small county start DWI Court?

At this point, I don’t know if Brown County will have fewer DWIs in the future as a result of its DWI Court—those types of results will take years to measure. What I do know is that the program made a difference in Bodie’s life. I can also see that the DWI Court is helping eight other people become better, safer, law-abiding members of society. I personally knew that the work was worth every minute when I saw Bodie stand in front of his peers, with tears in his eyes, and ask to be allowed to remain involved in the DWI Court after his graduation.

DWI Court also helps keep intoxicated drivers off of the road for at least a year through constant supervision. One of our participants was involved in two alcohol-related wrecks within two months prior to entering the program. Since then, we have placed him on a SCRAM device, a high-tech ankle monitor that screens for alcohol consumption, so we can ensure he is not drinking. So far, his device has reported that he has been in compliance with the probation requirements, and he has been collision-free for the four months he has been in the program.

As far as the workload goes, a small prosecutors’ office can definitely handle the additional work of a DWI Court. The most important question is whether key players in the legal community will support it. Finding a judge willing to oversee the DWI Court is critical, as is participation from a probation officer. The support of at least one defense attorney is helpful; we have discovered that most defense attorneys, although resistant at first, will support the program when they learn more about its purposes and goals.

Even with just one prosecutor on the misdemeanor docket, adding a DWI Court was still a manageable task. Once the program is up and running, the average time commitment each week for a small program is usually no more than an hour and a half. Setting up the court does require time to become familiar with other DWI Courts. For us, Williamson County’s program has been extremely generous in sharing information and tips; folks there even invited us to observe their court sessions. The National Highway and Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) provides additional training and technical assistance in starting a DWI Court, and funding may be available through a Criminal Justice Division Grant from the Office of the Governor. (And of course, our county’s court has its doors open to help other prosecutors and judges who are interested in starting new DWI Court programs.) Despite the work on the front end, the rewards of such a program are so significant that the time is well-invested for a prosecutor’s office.

A DWI Court in a small town may not have an enrollment as large as such a court in one of the major cities, but the impact in a small town is easier to see. We have only eight defendants in our program right now, but those eight people are part of our community with whom we interact and see every day. We hope to hear that there are many more stories like Bodie’s in the future. ✤