With driving under the influence of alcohol being an ever increasing threat to public safety and the bane of criminal court management, the judicial community in Allegheny County has taken aim with a new weapon.
Using grant money, the county has established DUI Treatment Court, which officials hope will do for alcohol-related crime what Drug Treatment Court has done for nonviolent drug offenders. The goal is to get the users off the substances, keep the offenders from continually having to be prosecuted and ease the growing residual costs to the public.
"Unfortunately, Allegheny County is probably the most appropriate place in Pennsylvania to create a DUI Treatment Court. It's the second-largest county in the state, and [because of the focus to curb drunken driving] there's nobody close to where we are in terms of reporting and prosecution," said District Attorney Stephen A. Zappala Jr.
Zappala credits Mothers Against Drunk Driving with bringing the problem into the public consciousness. In one year, from 1982 through 1983, the number of drunken driving cases filed in Allegheny County jumped 63 percent, to 4,055 from 2,485, prompting the organization to push for more emphasis on the crime. The number of drunken driving cases has remained relatively stable since then.
Although drunken driving fatality rates have continued to decline nationally and in Pennsylvania since 1982, the threat of disaster looms because many drivers still get caught behind the wheels of vehicles while under the influence of alcohol, according to courts and agencies determined to get those rates down.
The new DUI Treatment Court is designed to prevent motorists, particularly those with drinking problems, from using alcohol altogether.
Typically in the past, a person convicted of drunken driving would be sentenced to probation. Or, in cases of a person with multiple convictions, jail time was the punishment along with revocation of driving privileges, among other things.
The treatment court idea began in 1989 in Florida as an alternative to prison for these repeat, nonviolent offenders.
DUI courts similar to Allegheny County's already are up and running in Pennsylvania's Berks and Lackawanna counties.
In the less populated counties, drunken drivers are treated through the same or similar programs as drug abusers.
"People don't change because they see the light," Lackawanna County Common Pleas Judge Michael J. Barrasse said. "They change because they feel the heat."
Barrasse, who is president of the Pennsylvania Association of Drug Court Professionals, said that the threat of incarceration is a good incentive to keep recovering drunken drivers on the right track.
In Allegheny County, Zappala's office handles thousands of criminal cases each year, more than 25 percent of them involving drunken driving. That's about 4,000 drunken driving cases each year; the highest number was 4,939 in 2003.
Last year, 4,555 drunken driving cases were filed, and nearly 1,000 complaints had been prosecuted through June, according to the district attorney's calculations.
"We expect to handle about 4,000 cases in 2005," Zappala said.
Over time, it has become apparent that many of the offenders are frequent fliers. They have multiple prosecutions for the same offense, driving under the influence.
Two-thirds of the drivers who are stopped on suspicion of being drunk have blood alcohol contents of 0.16, according to the district attorney's records. That is twice the limit of 0.08 percent, at which a person is considered too drunk to drive in any state.
The repeat offenders clearly have a problem with alcohol and are a threat to public safety, officials say.
The state drug court professionals group, which also tracks DUI cases, estimates that keeping a convicted drunken driver in jail costs taxpayers between $20,000 and $50,000 a year. It costs between $2,500 and $4,000 to offer comprehensive treatment and education to that same person.
Conviction and jail time alone have not curbed their habits.
"In DUI cases where a person loses their license, the person continues to drive anyway," Zappala said. "It's only logical to go after the root of the problem, like we did with mental health court and drug court."
Zappala's staff wrote a proposal requesting funding from the National Highway Transportation Safety Administration. The office obtained funds for a partnership with the county adult probation office and Common Pleas Court to set up the DUI Treatment Court.
The funding grant, for about $128,000, requires quarterly evaluations by the state Department of Transportation and the Pennsylvania DUI Association.
The funds will be sought annually to pay salaries for one experienced prosecutor, a paralegal, an adult probation officer and a part-time assistant public defender.
Common Pleas Judge Kevin G. Sasinoski will handle all of the eligible cases. The idea is to make it a nonadversarial prosecution.
The defendant would have to have been arrested at least two or three times on misdemeanor counts of drunken driving. The person may not have any convictions or pending prosecutions in the past 10 years for any violent crime or serious felonies, including homicide by vehicle, aggravated assault, rape and robbery.
The prosecutor and the judge have the right to deny any applicant for the program.
Once accepted, the defendant would plead guilty to the charge and sign a contract agreeing to requirements of the program.
Treatment recommendations include regular attendance at Alcoholics Anonymous meetings, frequent and random urinalysis tests and progress hearings in court at least once a month, said Robert Dulac, supervisor of the alcohol highway safety program in the adult probation office.
Failure to comply with the requirements could result in "short periods of shock incarceration." This could include sentences of a mandatory minimum term in jail, house arrest and alternative housing.
Successful completion of the program to graduation could take about two years.
In cases in Drug Treatment Court, about 40 percent of the clients complete the program. Among those who do, the recidivism rate is about 28 percent, far below the rates of those drug offenders who do not take part. DUI Treatment Court hopes for equal or better success.
"[Without the DUI Treatment Court] a person is looking at one to five years in prison," Dulac said.
"DUI Treatment Court is coming off a successful piggyback to what Drug Treatment Court has turned into, not only in Pennsylvania, but across the country," he added.
James Rieland, interim chief adult probation officer in the county, said he fully expects the DUI court to be as successful as drug court.
"[Drunk drivers] are being earmarked as having drug or alcohol problems," Rieland said. "That is the reason for us continuing to see them. The court intervenes in their lives, the defendant has to agree to undergo the program, and it lessens their sentence."
Zappala said there is a key distinction between treatment patterns for drug court and DUI court. Drug court's primary objective is to address the addiction to an illegal substance as a root cause of the person's criminal activity. The DUI offenders' substance of choice is legal.
"Getting offenders not to drive when they are drunk is not the goal of meaningful DUI courts," Zappala said. "Rather, it is to get the offender to stop abusing alcohol at all times."
Dulac said one client already is in the new DUI Treatment Court program, with more expected to join it soon. He expects to have about 150 people a year participating.
Donna Pinkham, spokeswoman for the Pennsylvania Association of Drug Court Professionals, said the program is catching on across the country.
"We're trying to encourage as many counties [in Pennsylvania] as possible to get on board," she said, "because it is a proven approach to cut down on recidivism, jail, and get people healthy again."
Jim McKinnon can be reached at email@example.com or 412-263-1939.