As we near the end of Alcohol Awareness Month, it is important to note the progress being made in Missouri to protect public safety through smart justice.
Last February, in his much heralded State of the Judiciary Address, Missouri Chief Justice Ray Price called upon legislators and policymakers in Missouri to initiate a smarter, more cost effective approach to criminal justice. He called upon the state to expand highly successful drug courts and implement driving while intoxicated courts to ensure repeat offenders receive the accountability and treatment they need to permanently change their behavior. In late March it was announced that Boone County had launched a DWI court designed specifically for Missouri’s most dangerous drivers, repeat DWI offenders.
The Boone County DWI court is one of more than 500 DWI courts in operation throughout the country including 44 in Missouri. The court is not an experiment, but rather an extension of the drug court model, the nation's most successful and cost effective criminal justice intervention for substance abusing offenders.
Across the nation there are more than two million impaired drivers with three or more DWI convictions and a staggering 400,000 with five or more according to a 2009 Mothers Against Drunk Driving press release (PDF). Research has shown that these drivers pose the greatest risk of death on our roads. We all should be concerned that these repeat offenders are driving among us every day.
Clearly, traditional sentencing has had no effect on the behavior of repeat DWI offenders. We continue to dedicate valuable resources toward incarcerating these individuals and we see zero return on our investment. Incarceration alone does not work. It does not address the underlying cause of their behavior: alcohol addiction. These offenders must be held accountable for their actions, but they also must be given intensive long-term alcohol treatment.
This is precisely the work that will take place in the Boone County DWI court. This court, like all DWI courts, is an accountability court. Specifically targeting individuals with prior DWI convictions requires rigorous accountability.
Accountability is brought to bear by a team of specially trained court professionals. Participants are regularly tested for alcohol use, required to appear weekly in court, and receive incentives for doing well and sanctions for not living up to their obligations to themselves and their community. But accountability is only half the strategy; participants also receive long-term, rigorous treatment. This combination of close supervision and intense treatment has been proven to get repeat offenders to stop drinking and driving.
One recent study (PDF) found that repeat offenders who have participated in DWI court are 19 times less likely to drink and drive than DWI offenders in traditional courts and three times less likely to commit any other criminal offense. The study also found that DWI courts saved the criminal justice system time and money by getting the impaired driver quickly into treatment and using sanctions, such as jail, to ensure accountability.
Price called Missouri to action and residents of Boone County can be proud that their community is responding. Missouri already has more drug courts per capita than any other state and by further expanding DWI courts, Missouri can be a national model on how a state can improve public safety, reduce prison costs and save taxpayer money through smart justice.
David Wallace is director of the National Center for DWI Courts in Alexandria, Va.