Editor’s note: This is the third report in a three-part series about driving under the influence in Brookings County.
BROOKINGS – Getting impaired drivers off the streets is a matter of public safety, and local officials are hoping the brand-new DUI Court can help make the community safer.
Brookings has had Drug Court and Veterans Court for a while, and DUI Court will operate in a similar way, with people from the medical field and substance abuse field working with the legal system, Magistrate Judge Abigail Howard said.
DUI numbers are up, Brookings County State’s Attorney Dan Nelson said, “so there was a tremendous need to start a DUI Court here in Brookings.”
The purpose behind specialty courts like DUI Court is to help the people who have a substance abuse problem, but also to keep the public safe, the two said.
“What we’ve seen, based on the statistics and the research for DUI Courts, is that if you successfully complete that program, you’re less likely to continue to drink and drive and so that improves public safety,” Nelson said.
“This is our fifth year of having specialty courts in Brookings,” Howard said. “We started with the Drug Court back in 2016.”
“It was always our vision for specialty courts to have this combined Drug/DUI Court. Just because of the numbers of drug offenders and DUI offenders in Brookings County, we always thought it might be appropriate but you do have to get specialized training to add that DUI track component and you have to get approval from the Supreme Court, to do so, as well,” Howard said.
“Towards the end of 2020, early 2021, we approached our statewide liaison and the Supreme Court about adding the DUI track here in Brookings,” Howard said.
“The numbers were trending pretty consistently. I believe in 2019 and 2020, we had approximately 20 felony DUI convictions, so the numbers were enough there that we would have enough participants that we could be serving. And so we got approved by the chief justice and the Supreme Court,” Howard said.
With all the paperwork and training completed in the spring/early summer of 2021, they were ready to start the program.
There are three participants in the program, Howard said.
Three applications are pending, “so there is clearly a need and interest for a program treating the root problem of alcohol addiction,” added Joan Nettinga, Drug/DUI Court coordinator of Beadle and Brookings counties.
DUI Court has similar rules to Drug Court, and specialty courts have strict rules that participants must follow, the two said.
People have to apply for DUI Court, and they have to accept entry into the program. Just like Drug Court, a judge cannot sentence anyone to DUI Court.
A first or second DUI offense is a misdemeanor, but getting three or more DUIs is a felony and the person faces serving time in the penitentiary. The judge can offer the person a choice: prison or DUI Court.
“They are sentenced to prison and in lieu of going to prison, then they participate in this DUI Court program, as part of a probationary sentence,” Howard said.
DUI Court lasts at least 18 months.
“We don’t keep misdemeanor individuals on probation longer than a 360-day period. And really the first and second offenders aren’t yet considered high-risk, high-need, so it has to be a felony offender,” Howard said.
Offenders go through an assessment to decide if they are high-need, “meaning basic treatment services maybe haven’t worked for them in the past; they need more intensive treatment, maybe a combination of mental health and substance use disorder treatment,” Howard said.
“These are individuals that have a substance abuse problem, in this case, alcoholism,” Nelson said. “From a public safety standpoint, how do we ensure that someone who is suffering from alcoholism can deal (with) and get treatment for that issue – because if they are able to successfully confront and overcome that issue, they’re less likely to get behind the wheel under the influence of alcohol.”
Not everyone qualifies to apply to DUI Court, and not everyone who qualifies goes into the program, Howard said.
“If you interviewed my participants right now, they would all say going to prison is probably easier than dealing with me and all of the requirements they have,” Howard said.
Participants have to work with a probation officer and meet at least weekly and submit to random drug testing “because you can often have co-occurring disorders,” Howard said.
They have daily alcohol monitoring through preliminary breath tests (PBT) or a SCRAM (Secure Continuous Remote Alcohol Monitor) bracelet which detects alcohol from a person’s sweat and sends an alert to the court if alcohol is detected.
“They do mental health and substance use disorder treatment. They usually do individual treatment sessions and then group treatment sessions. They have to come to court weekly,” Howard said.
After a DUI offense, a driver’s license is always revoked, she added. For a felony offense, you lose your license for at least a year.
“You have to earn that privilege back. Basically, you have to complete a certain number of requirements before you’re eligible again to get the work permit,” Howard said.
Over the years, it’s been recognized that people who drink and drive have an underlying health problem contributing to their behavior.
“All of these people, whether it’s meth or whether it’s alcohol, they’re people that are struggling with a medical substance use disorder,” Howard said.
Since lawyers are not doctors or specialists in substance abuse, the specialty courts are supported by a team of people who are experts in those areas.
“I would really give a lot of credit to the team,” Howard said. “The Drug Court, DUI Court team is what I rely on as the judge when I have court each week, so we have folks from the substance use community, folks from the mental health community, we have law enforcement, folks from the jail, we have a defense attorney, a prosecutor, Court Service officer, and then an administrator or coordinator and everybody plays a different role in terms of their contact with the participants.”
“We stay within our lane. I never tell a treatment provider, ‘You have to give this type of treatment.’ They tell us what is appropriate for our participant and how it plays into their schedule and their routine, how they’re doing with it, what’s going well, what’s not going well, so I fully rely on that team to make sure that people are being served properly and that we can assess them and get the services they need,” Howard said.
Not soft on crime
Nelson addressed a misconception that the specialty courts are “less aggressive and softer on crime.”
“I think it’s important for people to realize that it’s actually a more appropriate approach for those that are dealing with substance abuse in that we’re giving them the tools to make sure they can live crime-free and productive lives after they exit the criminal justice system,” Nelson said.
Sending offenders to prison isn’t helping with the ultimate goal of public safety because prison isn’t addressing the root problem, which is substance abuse, Nelson said.
“Based on the data and the statistics, (prison) has shown not to be helpful in terms of making sure that that person doesn’t continue to drink and drive,” Nelson said.
“If you look at the hard data, individuals who go to prison and get out of prison, oftentimes don’t remain crime-free. In fact, they continue to commit the same crimes that sent them there in the first place,” Nelson said.
That’s where the specialty courts come in.
“We still hold people accountable,” Howard said. “It is still a very intense, hard program to be a participant in, we still certainly have the public safety and the community at the forefront of the concerns.”
Nelson warned that specialty courts are not a get-out-of-prison-free card.
“We’re not getting soft on crime; we’re not trying to lessen our approach in terms of how we’re dealing with DUIs. What we’re trying to do is we’re getting smarter in how (we deal) with individuals who have substance abuse and that substance abuse is the driver behind the crime,” Nelson said.
“If you can address that issue in a more successful and appropriate way than prison and you can do it in your community, not only is it better for the public safety, because they’re getting better, but it’s also a benefit for the taxpayer dollars, because it’s very expensive to incarcerate someone in prison for a year rather than having them do the Drug Court and DUI Court programs,” Nelson said.
After several years of Drug Court, Howard has some experience with those who wind up in her courtroom and face the choice she offers.
Some are ready to get clean and sober; others are not, and they would rather go to prison.
For those ready to heal, going through the process can literally change their thinking.
“As they start to heal, their brains heal from the use, they start to recognize all the benefits that come from it and then the treatment really starts to kick in,” Howard said.
Not everyone completes the 18-month program. Some do and still relapse.
“It is not a cure-all,” Howard said. “We do a lot of work with them and they are often in a good place when they graduate. But substance use disorder, just like any medical disease, is a life-long disorder and they have to continue combating that for the rest of their lives.”
“We don’t consider them cured; we consider them in recovery. So I can’t promise the community that every person who graduates will never have another issue or infraction come up, but I can assure you they’re equipped with the tools to deal with it, if they want to,” Howard said.
She’s seen many ways in which people have improved their lives after going through Drug Court, and she believes it will be the same with DUI Court.
“They’ve gotten their children back from the Department of Social Services,” Howard said.
Some people now work full-time jobs when they couldn’t hold down a job while they were using. Some go back to school to get a degree and career they’ve always wanted to pursue. Some are living in their own residence, being responsible for rent and bills, for the first time in their adult lives. Some are going to meetings with their sponsor, others are organizing social activities like sports or clubs for others in recovery.
“They’re not all easy cases, if they were, we wouldn’t have these programs. But the ones that accomplish things, it’s just really remarkable,” Howard said.
“We’ve just seen folks that have done such amazing things that it’s, for us, at least for me, it’s really a gift to be a part of. It’s the favorite part of my week,” Howard said. “It’s just remarkable to see what they can do when they have somebody behind them.”
If you’d like to make a donation of some kind or want to volunteer as a mentor or friend of the program, contact Nelson at the State’s Attorney’s Office at the City & County Government Center on Third Street or call 605-692-8606, or contact Nettinga at [email protected] or at 605-690-1591.
Contact Jodelle Greiner at [email protected]