DUI detour 

Missoula considers separate court for drunk drivers

Brandon M. Darrah wracked up his fifth DUI in November after driving his car off Deer Creek Road and plunging down a 300-foot cliff. The incident occurred just nine days after the 24-year-old was sentenced to probation for his fourth drunk driving charge, a felony.

"He would never do any treatment," says Justice of the Peace Karen Orzech, pointing to the long list of drunk driving charges filed over a period of several years against the East Missoula man.

Darrah lost his drivers license with the first DUI. After subsequent charges, he was sentenced to jail and fined. None of those punishments stopped the young man from drinking and getting behind the wheel. According to a frustrated Orzech, Darrah's hardly an exception.

"There's a huge problem here," she says.

click to enlarge Missoula County Justice of the Peace Karen Orzech says creating a local DUI court will help reduce the number of repeat drunk driving offenders. “This is about holding the legal system accountable,” she says. “It’s not just about the defendants.” - PHOTO BY CATHRINE L. WALTERS
  • Photo by Cathrine L. Walters
  • Missoula County Justice of the Peace Karen Orzech says creating a local DUI court will help reduce the number of repeat drunk driving offenders. “This is about holding the legal system accountable,” she says. “It’s not just about the defendants.”

That's why Orzech is proposing a new Missoula DUI court, which she maintains would substantially reduce repeat offenses. She hopes to have it up and running in Missoula by year's end.

"If it's not done this year, I'm not sure I want to continue being a judge," says Orzech, who is running for re-election in November against lead justice court clerk Beverly J. Smith.

Of course, Orzech's not alone in offering up a solution to the mounting issue of drunk driving in Missoula and across the state. Montana consistently tops the national list for drunk driving fatalities, and the Legislature's Interim Law and Justice Committee has made it a top priority. Recent local tragedies prompted the Missoula City Council to discuss an ordinance that would make it illegal to refuse a law enforcement officer's request for a sobriety test. But Orzech says DUI court is the best way to address the problem because it combines fixing the judicial system and improving access to intensive counseling.

"They're not getting treatment in jail," she says of DUI offenders. "This is about holding the legal system accountable. It's not just about the defendants."

Approximately 240 communities across the nation operate DUI courts. The model is becoming increasingly popular, as Billings, Kalispell and Sidney already run similar programs.

It's too early to gauge the success of Montana's fledgling programs, says State Drug Court Coordinator Jeff Kushner, who also oversees DUI courts. But he points to an NPC Research study conducted in Michigan that found during a two-year period offenders who went through traditional sentencing were 19 times more likely to be arrested for drinking and driving than DUI court graduates.

"This is the first time that the criminal justice system has integrated as a primary focus drug and alcohol treatment," says Kushner.

DUI court judges require offenders to sign a contract agreeing to seek addiction treatment. If that contract is broken, punishment is doled out on a case-by-case basis. If, for instance, a defendant slips and misses a counseling appointment, the judge may issue a verbal reprimand. If the offense is more serious, punishment could be community service or jail time.

"If you do well, you get a reward," Orzech says. "If you haven't done well, you get dinged."

A primary difference between the existing system and the DUI model is increased oversight. For instance, an individual sentenced through DUI court appears weekly before the judge and other stakeholders, including law enforcement, a prosecutor and defense attorney. A treatment expert is also on hand to help evaluate an offender's progress toward goals identified in the contract.

Current law requires DUI offenders to participate in addiction counseling, but lax judicial oversight makes skirting that mandate easy, says Skip Rosenthal, executive director of Western Montana Addiction Services, an organization that oversees Turning Point, one of two state-subsidized addiction-counseling programs for DUI offenders in Missoula.

"We have a lot of people who just don't show up for intake or they drop out," Rosenthal says. "I don't know if they're getting treatment elsewhere or if they're just not showing up."

Of the 1,200 DUI-based referrals to Turning Point in 2008, Rosenthal says only 1,000 actually completed the program.

"There really are no consequences," he says of the 200 who didn't finish.

Rosenthal says the treatment does work, but weaning people from ingrained destructive behaviors often necessitates holding their feet to the fire during the critical initial months of sobriety.

"Where DUI courts work is not so much getting people access to treatment," he says, "it's making sure they go there."

Launching the effort in Missoula requires cooperation and collaboration across the legal system. It also requires a great commitment of time, money and staffing.

"I think the biggest barrier is that we have a legal system that's taxed beyond belief," admits Orzech.

That's largely why Orzech's challenger says implementing DUI court now isn't the way to go.

"It's not a very cost-efficient measure," Smith says.

Smith also argues that Orzech's proposal duplicates existing services, hasn't been sufficiently proven to reduce repeat offenses and would be unfair to many offenders because only defendants appearing in Orzech's court would be able to participate.

Missoula County Attorney Fred Van Valkenburg isn't entirely sold on the proposal, either. He's weighing potential benefits and pitfalls of the plan, while evaluating how much time his office would have to contribute.

"If the end result is we have significantly less offenders," he says, "I think that's probably time well spent."

Orzech, however, argues that without a wholesale shift to the system, Missoula's DUI problem will persist.

"You have to have a community that's willing to come together and think a little bit differently about these things," Orzech says. "I want the system to be accountable. We know what works. We just have to do it." The Cave:Advertising:02 Production Art:IndyLogoDingbat2002.tifB:'",,"")>

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