COLUMBIA — A new court program allows those with repeat convictions of driving while intoxicated to avoid jail time while receiving treatment for alcohol abuse.
Thirteenth Circuit Associate Judge Christine Carpenter is responsible for the effort to create the court, which started Thursday and will operate alongside the already-established drug and mental health courts that treat repeat nonviolent offenders.
A $50,000 federal grant to operate the program is enough to pay for the "testing and tracking" of 30 people but not their treatment, according to Carpenter.
"The people who come to DWI court are going to have to pay for their own treatment," Carpenter said, an amount estimated at $3,000 a year for each person.
Despite the cost, Carpenter is confident all available spots will be occupied.
Traditionally, a person convicted of a second DWI serves a mandatory five-day jail sentence, but as incentive to participate in the rehabilitation program, the sentence is reduced to five days of home detention.
DWI Court Administrator Casey Forbis said participants must obtain and maintain either employment or a position in an educational or vocational program as well as attend 12-step meetings such as Narcotics Anonymous or Alcoholics Anonymous.
Participants are required to receive substance abuse treatment the entire time they are in the program, Forbis wrote in an e-mail.
Drug court, a treatment court program that is also overseen by Carpenter and that is similar to DWI court in its emphasis on rehabilitation, has been found to be more effective than incarceration at keeping repeat abusers from relapsing into substance abuse or returning to prison.
According to statistics from the National Association of Drug Court Professionals, 60 percent to 80 percent of incarcerated drug abusers commit a new crime after release from prison, and 95 percent return to drug abuse. For drug court participants, 75 percent of graduates are not arrested within at least two years of graduation, according to the association.
Carpenter started the DWI court in Boone County because of the success of her other alternative sentencing courts.
"I wanted to start a DWI court because it is a logical extension of," Carpenter said. "The number of offenders is large, the level of supervision available is minimal and we see many repeat offenders. It is a huge financial drain on the county and the state, as well as the offenders themselves. ... I have seen successful programs in other counties and other states and when some funding became available it was a natural addition to our other alternative sentencing courts."
In his State of the Judiciary Address in February, Missouri Supreme Court Chief Justice William Price Jr. said sending nonviolent drug and alcohol offenders to prison is costing too much money and is ineffective.
“We need to move from anger-based sentencing that ignores cost and effectiveness to evidence-based sentencing that focuses on results — sentencing that assesses each offender’s risk and then fits that offender with the cheapest and most effective rehabilitation that he or she needs,” Price said.
Alternative sentencing programs can also save the government money.
“Perhaps the biggest waste of resources in all of state government is the over-incarceration of nonviolent offenders and our mishandling of drug and alcohol offenders," Price said in his address. "It is costing us billions, and it is not making a dent in crime.”
In a report by The Sentencing Project, an organization that promotes alternatives to incarceration, the national average annual cost of incarceration is about $23,000 per inmate, while the average annual cost of a drug court participant is about $4,300 per person.
"It costs about $50 a day to have somebody in prison," Carpenter said of the Boone County justice system. "It costs about $15 a day to have somebody in drug court."
All that money spent on incarceration adds up. According to The Sentencing Project's report, The Office of National Drug Control Policy estimated that in 1998 illegal drug use cost Americans $31.1 billion in criminal justice expenses.
Early intervention is necessary for the DWI court to be most effective, Carpenter said.
"The vast majority of the people who get one don’t ever get another one," Carpenter said. "But the people that get two, get three and four — that was the biggest reason for our wanting to intervene after the second.”
A bill that has Missouri Gov. Jay Nixon's support aims to fix loopholes in Missouri state law by requiring all jurisdictions to enter DWI arrests and case information into the Missouri State Highway Patrol's DWI Tracking System. This would help end an ongoing problem in some areas of the state where DWI arrest and conviction information was only available in the jurisdiction where the original offense occurred.
"It’s very difficult sometimes to find out if somebody has a prior conviction because they are not being reported through the municipal courts," Carpenter said. "You might get somebody that comes to Boone County who gets a DWI, and it’s their first, but they might have had several previously somewhere else."
Current law also includes a provision which allows for a driver's DWI record to be expunged after 10 incident-free years. The proposed bill would eliminate that provision.
Another article in the proposed bill would require people arrested with a blood-alcohol level of 0.15 and above on their first offense to be tried in a state court instead of the jurisdiction where the arrest was made. Carpenter worries that provision will overwhelm her already busy DWI docket.
The City of Columbia Municipal Court saw about 600 first-time DWI offenders in 2009 — nearly the same number that were seen in the state court in Boone County. Should Municipal Court lose the power to try first-time DWI offenders in its own court, all 1,200 DWI firsts would be heard by Carpenter.
"Our clerks office couldn’t keep up with it," Carpenter said.