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