TWIN FALLS • Twin Falls County DUI Court coordinator Steve Conger said one of the worst cases he saw was a man who spent 18 years in prison off and on for DUIs. Then he got another DUI shortly after getting out of prison.
“The judge said, ‘I’m going to make you do DUI court,’” Conger said. “Now he’s four years sober.”
Conger said he often hears from family members of people who have cleaned up after going through the court who thank him for giving them their loved one back.
“I didn’t give anybody back,” he said. “He chose to wake up.”
Not for Everyone
Before they are admitted, everyone who applies to DUI court takes a test to determine the level of their addiction and how likely they are to reoffend.
“It was originally designed to evaluate recidivism rates among felons,” Conger said.
The questions, often extremely personal, ask about employment, education, drug problems, family life, financial issues, what a person’s friends are like, emotional health and a person’s attitude toward the court and law enforcement.
In order to be accepted into DUI court, a person must score somewhere in the middle. A high score means DUI court won’t be of much use — a person may be too entrenched in their former life, Conger said.
Score too low, and regular probation is probably the better plan.
“Basically, we could do more harm than good,” Conger said.
Restricted Driver’s License
Getting in the program can allow someone with a DUI to get a restricted driver’s license that allows them to drive to and from work.
Those with an excessive DUI normally get an automatic one-year suspension, Twin Falls County 5th District Magistrate Judge Thomas Kershaw said.
New ignition interlock devices keep records of every blow and send the results to the owner’s probation officer. Some take pictures to prove who is blowing. Along with having to test when the car is initially started, the interlock can require a test mid-drive. The device starts beeping and requires the driver to pull over, turn the car off and take a test.
If they fail, the car won’t start, Wright said.
Jake Brady graduated DUI court in September. After his second driving under the influence charge, Brady said his attorney told him about DUI court.
After applying, Brady was placed on a waiting list for four months.
“Once I got in everything ran smoothly,” he said. “It was probably one of the best things that’s happened to me.”
Over the year he spent in DUI court, Brady bought a house and finished his associate degree in diesel mechanics at the College of Southern Idaho.
“I did some big things in my life while I was in there,” he said.
During the four months of waiting for a spot to open up, Brady said he rode a bike everywhere. Brady said he was a full-time student and was thankful his boss at Burks Tractor Co. didn’t fire him after his DUI.
From work, to counseling and Alcoholics Anonymous meetings, to his CSI classes and home to his fiancée and three children, Brady was on his bike.
“It was tough, but I got through it,” he said.
While DUI court has tough requirements, Brady said the experience was worth it for many reasons.
“It sounds bad going to court every week, but you’re only in there for a half hour,” he said. “I recommend to people that have the option to go in on a Wednesday and check it out.”
Brady also praised the court’s staff.
“They’re not there to get you in trouble; they’re there to help you,” he said. “People have a misconception. It was a life changing experience for me. I’m doing amazing right now.”
DUI court started in Twin Falls County after a three-year grant was awarded for its creation.
The DUI court opened its doors in October 2006 with a judge, clerk, Conger and one client.
“Then we ended up with two; two turned into 12,” Conger said.
Eventually, the court grew to an average of 50 people.
Now that the grant has run out, the court is supported by fees from participants.
Every client must pay a $100 monthly fee, which also covers their drug and alcohol tests. The ignition interlock that tests for alcohol in a client’s vehicle costs $80 a month and treatment costs are even more. The average person spends about $2,500 on treatment during their time in DUI court, Conger said.
The cost of the program is one reason for its success, said 5th Judicial District Trial Court Administrator Linda Wright.
“They are invested in it,” Wright said. “It’s not a freebie to them. There are fees every week.”
Court is supposed to be impersonal for a lot of different reasons, Wright said. DUI court is totally different.
“You get to feeling sort of paternal for these people,” Kershaw said. “It’s a whole different thing because you have a relationship.”
Room to Mess Up
The court allows for some slip-ups along the way that would carry a different punishment than regular probation.
Initially, participants must attend court every Wednesday morning at 7:30 a.m. As they progress through the program, they come to court less often.
They also attend weekly therapy and 12-step programs and must regularly submit to urine analysis tests and have a breath testing device installed in their car that will prevent it from starting with a mere trace of alcohol.
In court each morning, Kershaw has just a half hour to talk with the court participants and have several people step up to answer a weekly question.
He might ask what support the court can provide, where a person was when they received their DUI or ask what it means to really be honest with themselves. Individual problems are also discussed.
If a person hasn’t shown up to court, therapy or other assigned treatment, Kershaw calls them up to his bench.
Having a relapse and drinking is also a reason to be sanctioned. Participants might get a warning or could be sentenced to community service hours or a few days in jail.
Kershaw said his attitude has changed toward people who make mistakes after sentencing.
“I thought we give you a chance, if you blow it, that’s it,” he said.
While that’s sometimes true, DUI court is different, he said.
“It doesn’t work that way with addiction,” Kershaw said. “We can’t count on the first attempt being successful.”
At the same time, Kershaw said, he doesn’t want to give people permission to screw up.
Right now, Conger supervises about 40 DUI court graduates who are still on probation.
The hope is that the DUI court experience has given them the tools to care for themselves.
“If they fail now it’s a normal probation violation,” he said.
Many people get a DUI and never get another one, Kershaw said. They’re embarrassed, they take their punishment and move on. For others, it’s not so easy.
The fact that people can go through DUI court and still see their family and generally keep their job is a bonus, Kershaw said.
Those who successfully complete DUI court are much less likely to get another DUI, Kershaw said.
Kershaw said he knows the court has a positive impact on the people who go through it, but hasn’t seen an impact in the number of people convicted of DUIs.
“I know it makes a difference in individual people’s lives,” Kershaw said. “But the DUIs keep rolling in.”