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Public Health and the Judiciary: Sobriety Courts

posted on Tue, Dec 20 2016 11:04 am by Colleen Healy

For the past two decades, alcohol-impaired motor vehicle crashes have been responsible for approximately one third of all U.S. crash fatalities. In addition to causing thousands of premature deaths each year, alcohol related motor vehicle crashes result in disability, decreased quality of life, lost productivity, and billions of dollars in societal costs. Due to the increased incidence of impaired driving during the holiday season, December is observed as National Impaired Driving Prevention Month.

According to a study by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), approximately 25 percent of individuals arrested for alcohol-impaired driving violations become repeat offenders. In fact, legally impaired drivers (legal impairment in all states occurs at a blood alcohol concentration (BAC) of .08 g/dL or higher) involved in fatal motor vehicle crashes are seven times more likely to have prior convictions for driving while impaired as compared to drivers with no alcohol in their blood. Individuals with any alcohol-impaired driving violations are also far more likely to be involved in subsequent alcohol-related crashes.

Alcohol-impaired driving is a complex and persistent public health problem requiring multi-faceted legal solutions that address both the causes and consequences of impaired driving. Several legal interventions have been implemented by states to reduce alcohol-impaired driving and crashes, particularly among repeat offenders. Legal strategies encouraged by the CDC include expanded use of sobriety checkpoints (traffic stops by law enforcement to check drivers for signs of intoxication and impairment); enforcement of minimum legal drinking age laws and laws establishing an upper limit for drivers’ BAC; the required use of alcohol ignition interlocks (in-car breathalyzers that prevent operation of a vehicle if BAC is too high) by individuals convicted of impaired driving; and increased alcohol taxes.

These legal strategies are key to improving the safety of our roads. However, they do not address the underlying issue of alcohol addiction that afflicts many impaired drivers. Drug courts—and particularly DWI (driving while intoxicated), DUI (driving under the influence), and sobriety courts—are designed specifically “to protect public safety while addressing the root causes of recidivist impaired driving.”

Drug courts are specialized court dockets that focus primarily on nonviolent offenders with alcohol or other substance use disorders. The courts utilize needs assessments, frequent judicial interaction, intense supervision and monitoring, timely and graduated sanctions and incentives, and treatment and rehabilitation services to reduce rates of recidivism. The programs are typically managed by teams comprised of judges, attorneys, social workers, parole officers, and treatment providers. Drug court programs are voluntary and generally allow an offender to defer prosecution through participation in the program (with charges dismissed or not prosecuted upon successful completion of the treatment program) or are offered post-adjudication, in which case a participant who pleads guilty to a charge may have his or her sentence suspended or deferred (and ultimately waived) in exchange for participation in the program. As of 2014, there were more than 3000 drug courts across the U.S. 

DWI courts are modeled after drug courts, with Ten Guiding Principles:

  1. Determine the Population
  2. Perform a Clinical Assessment
  3. Develop the Treatment Plan
  4. Supervise the Offender
  5. Forge Agency, Organization, and Community Partnerships
  6. Take a Judicial Leadership Role
  7. Develop Case Management Strategies
  8. Address Transportation Issues
  9. Evaluate the Program
  10. Ensure a Sustainable Program

DWI courts yield significantly improved outcomes as compared to standard or intensive probation or adjudication, while producing significant cost savings. On average, DWI courts reduce general recidivism and DWI recidivism by 12 percent, and the best DWI court programs reduce recidivism by 50-60 percent.

I had an opportunity recently to talk with Judge Donald Allen, who presides over the 55th District Sobriety Court in Mason, Michigan. The 55th District Sobriety Court is very successful, reporting recidivism rates lower than the national average. Judge Allen attributes his Sobriety Court’s success to several factors including intense supervision, a heightened sense of accountability through frequent contact with the judge, immediate consequences for behaviors, and the opportunity for the judge to understand and address participants’ histories and triggers. Judge Allen believes that his greatest impact on Sobriety Court participants is through his high expectations for them and through truly listening to participants in order to help them find who they were before the onset of their substance use disorder.

Judge Allen sees a clear nexus between his work as a judge and the public’s health. Sobriety courts provide just one excellent avenue for the judiciary to play a role in improving the health of communities. Other problem-solving courts such as mental health courts, veterans’ treatment courts, and lead courts (designed to improve landlords’ compliance with lead abatement laws) similarly allow judges to apply a public health perspective to judicial decision making. For more information on problem-solving courts, see the Network resources listed below:

Issue Brief: Taking Public Health to Court

Webinar: Specialty Courts to Improve Public Health Outcomes

This post was developed by Colleen Healy, Staff Attorney, at the Network for Public Health Law – Mid-States Region at the University of Michigan School of Public Health.The Network for Public Health Law provides information and technical assistance on issues related to public health. The legal information and assistance provided in this post does not constitute legal advice or legal representation. For legal advice, readers should consult a lawyer in their state.

Support for the Network is provided by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation (RWJF). The views expressed in this post do not necessarily represent the views of, and should not be attributed to, RWJF.

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