A mix of judicial, law enforcement and probation and treatment personnel has jelled to combat drunk driving and its causes.
The new Sobriety Court in Conway is expected to serve as a force to cope with the distress of drunk driving, officials said.
Because drunk driving is so pervasive and damaging, the necessity of a Sobriety Court is said to be essential. Law enforcement personnel see drunk driving as a community dilemma and a criminal activity that has a tremendous, negative effect. A growing, bustling city like Conway cannot tolerate drunk driving, say judicial officials.
In 2010, a total of 567 DWI offenses were filed in district court. Of that number, 126 were repeat offenders.That does not include charges against people who are drinking in public or drinking on highways.
District Court Judge Amy Brazil will head the seven-member team that will adjudicate cases. There are only four other similar courts in the state.
Other members of the Faulkner County team include public defender Justin Chapman, assistant prosecuting attorney Graham Jones, Detective Jason Cameron of the Conway Police Department, probation officer Kathy Stringer, Mary Hairston of Counseling Associates and clerk Cindy Nutter.
The aim of the Sobriety Court is to handle cases of people who have a serious drinking problem and who have multiple arrests for DWIs. Officials hope to use the court to rehabilitate drivers who have a drinking problem.
Ordinary arrest processes involving drunk drivers have not been effective, enforcement officials said.
Drunk drivers routinely face suspended driver’s licenses, jail or prison time or fines. Often offenders return to drinking and driving, despite the punishments.
There have been few, if any attempts, at rehabilitation.
Drunk driving is an illness, and only specific treatment offers a restorative cure. Thus the target group for the district court includes people who are charged with two or three DWI offenses within the past five years and have other related drinking violations, such as public intoxication.
"These individuals must illustrate a willingness to admit their addiction and deal with it rather than just a way to avoid jail time, " the judge said. So this virtually sophisticated process is the core of the Sobriety Court. People who are arrested and brought before the court are processed to determine their records. If several arrests are noted, the individual is subject to a screening process by Mary Hairston, a licensed screener with Counseling Associates, a community mental health center located in Conway,
"My job is and has been to visit the court docket to learn of DWI arrests and to work from that information," Hairston said. "With the Sobriety Court, we will be involved with people who have multiple arrests for DWI and our job is to change their focus, so to speak, and get them on the straight and narrow."
From the viewpoint of Detective Jason Cameron, the emphasis of the court will be directed to drivers who have been caught time after time driving under the influence.
"Individuals so inclined are apparently oblivious to constraints such as doing jail time, losing their driver’s license, paying fines and even put on monitors to control their impulses," he said.
Brazil suggested that these individuals are hardcore motorists who have been arrested "time and time again driving under the influence and whose previous penalties have not been effective."
From the point of view of law enforcement officers who see drunk driving offenders frequently, they have come to realize that typical sanctions don’t work.
"They don’t care if their driver’s licenses are suspended. Most of these people haven’t had a driver’s license at all," said Cameron. "This is not an issue with them; they don’t really care,"
And as far as jail time is concerned, this sanction is of little consequence, officials said.
"What the Sobriety Court recognizes is that these people have a particular alcohol addiction," said the detective. "We want to address that problem and make our community safer. If the problem is not addressed, we’re not accomplishing anything. But if the court addresses the problem and gives the people what they need to control their addiction this court becomes a highly effective tool."
The detective and other members of the court have no illusions about drunk driving. They recognize the fact that any society where alcohol is used and available is invariably afflicted by the problems of intoxication and drunk driving.
They are aware the incidence of alcohol dependence has been rising dramatically. Statistics are difficult to quote with any certainty but rough estimates indicate that there are more than 5 million alcohol-dependent persons in the U. S. (One in 50 in the population.)
In the face of these numbers, the court feels the necessity of meeting the problem of drunk driving with therapies of many kinds. This is the essence of the Sobriety Court.
It has been noted that individuals graduating from Sobriety Courts were 65 percent less likely to be re-arrested for a new DWI offense. Good but not good enough, said the judge. The important goal is to get the participants returned to a sober, productive life — either going back to school, keeping a job or reuniting a family, she said.