My-TurnCounty’s DUI court will target repeat offenders

By Heidi Smith

Beginning this fall, Okanogan County District Court is set to launch a DUI Court, a specialized treatment court with the goal of targeting repeat drunk drivers.

In a recent 12-month study, 313 people in Okan-ogan County were charged with DUI. Of those charged, 78 had two or more prior DUI charges, 31 had three or more prior DUI charges, and 27 had four or more prior DUI charges.

Many of these repeat offenders also have a history of alcohol-related and/or domestic violence charges. Clearly, we have a significant problem with chronic drunk drivers in this county and our traditional approach to sentencing has not been effective enough in reducing recidivism.

The goal of the DUI Court is to improve public safety by addressing the underlying cause of these offenders’ behavior: alcohol and/or drug addiction. DUI Court participants will be regularly tested for alcohol and drug use, subject to random home visits, required to appear weekly in court, required to have jobs or perform volunteer work, and receive incentives for doing well and sanctions for not living up to their obligations to themselves and our community.

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.

Due to a generous grant from the Washington Traffic Safety Commission, our DUI Court team recently attended national training developed by the National Center for DWI Courts in Newport Beach, Calif., where we joined teams from Louisiana, North Dakota, New Mexico and Colorado.

Okanogan County team members include Judge Heidi Smith, treatment professionals Nancy Barnes and Dan Boyle, defense attorneys Mike Prince and Dustin Burke, Deputy Prosecutor David Gecas, District Court Administrator Sandra Ervin, Probation Officer Carrie Port, and Okanogan County Sheriff’s Sergeant Tony Hawley.

At the four-day training, we learned evidence-based practices for operating our DUI Court.  Topics included psychopharmacology, assessment and screening tools, treatment models, community supervision methods, sanctions and incentives, ethics, court development, program evaluation, and strategies for sustaining the court financially.

As part of the training we visited a DUI Court in action and saw first-hand the transformation that is possible when the criminal justice system takes a team-centered approach to drunk driving.

The next steps in our planning process are to visit the DUI Court in Spokane and continue developing our policies and protocols, with the aim of starting a pilot DUI Court this October. While our large, rural county does present some practical challenges for us, our team is enthusiastic and committed to finding solutions to improve outcomes for DUI offenders and create a safer, healthier community. An ambitious goal, but we have to start somewhere.

Heidi Smith is presiding judge of Okanogan County District Court.