La Plata County Judge Martha Minot is proposing a new tact for dealing with repeat drunken drivers: Rather than throw them in jail, give them the resources and supervision they need to break the dangerous cycle.
The judge is spearheading a new “problem-solving court” that would allow qualifying offenders to participate in a DUI court that would meet every two weeks for up to three years. She wants to see it up and running as soon as May 1.
“The DUI court will provide a venue whereby we can keep the community safe but also get people with serious addictions the help they need and the support they need to stay out of the criminal justice system,” Minot said Wednesday at a meeting to launch the effort. “That really is my goal. ... No one wants to be in these positions, but they don’t know how to get out of them.”
Participants would undergo an in-depth assessment to identify underlying addictions and mental health issues. A team of lawyers, probation officers, mental health specialists and the judge would create individualized probation plans. Defendants would receive praise for good behavior and swift sanctions for transgressions.
La Plata County already has two problem-solving courts: one that focuses on drug addiction and a second that deals with behavioral health. But neither is tailored to treat repeat DUI offenders, who often don’t understand the societal implications of their actions, Minot said.
At Wednesday’s meeting, mental health providers said it is imperative for defendants to receive positive feedback from the judicial system once they have corrected their ways. Minot said she has learned to praise people in her drug and behavior courts, going so far as to bake them a cake of their choosing upon graduation.
“I even got to decorate a SpongeBob SquarePants cake once,” Minot said.
Eight of Colorado’s 22 judicial districts have DUI courts. The need seems apparent in La Plata County, where about a third of the 458 DUI cases in 2014 were repeat offenders, Minot said.
“I think there is a need,” she said. “I think there are some people who we could really help. As a community member, I almost feel like it’s a disservice if you know there’s a need out there, you might have an ability to help, and you don’t do it. That’s why we’re undertaking this.”
Judicial officials must now craft guidelines for who will be eligible and who will be excluded from DUI court. For example, the court will likely serve only people who have had three or more DUIs. But it likely won’t accept offenders who have killed someone or caused serious bodily injury as a result of drunken driving.
People who rack up multiple DUIs are stuck in a cycle of bad behavior. DUI court is a mechanism for getting them help and ultimately making the community safer, she said.
“The whole point of this program really is about community safety,” she said. “The supervision is so intense, and the testing is so intense, and we’re on it every two weeks. So if someone is using (alcohol), they have a consequence right away, which really isn’t the typical pattern if someone is on standard probation.”