Gazette opinion: New court driving change for worst DUI offenders

2011-05-18T00:00:00Z Gazette opinion: New court driving change for worst DUI offenders The Billings Gazette
May 18, 2011 12:00 am

Since January, 32 of the most dangerous DUI offenders in Yellowstone County have been held to a higher level of accountability for their crimes.

They are being kept on a sober path with strict supervision from the new Impaired Driving Court in District Court. Newly elected District Judge Mary Jane Knisely began the Impaired Driving Treatment Court within weeks of starting her new job. The program, which is supported by federal traffic safety funds allocated by the Montana Department of Transportation, is sorely needed in Montana’s most populous county.

A population of hard-core repeat offenders has long menaced our community. Their offenses are chronicled regularly on Gazette news pages. A shocking number of DUI suspects have been arrested with children in their vehicles, resulting in felony endangerment charges.

Knisely spearheaded the launch of three treatment courts while she served as Billings Municipal Court judge. In fact, a few participants from the municipal DUI treatment court transferred over to the new District Court treatment program.

Dr. Cary Heck, of the University of Wyoming, a nationally recognized expert on treatment courts, visited the Impaired Driving Court in late March and reported that it “seems to be off to an excellent start.”

In a written report, Heck described two cases he saw in a court session:

A female participant “whose husband was living in a manner inconsistent with her goals of sobriety. Despite the lack of jurisdiction, the man was asked to attend court and Judge Knisely talked with him frankly about his role in the process. He stated that he was making changes and that the sobriety of his wife was of the utmost importance to him. Few criminal justice interventions can claim the positive influence that this program seems to wield.”

A graduate “spoke of years of alcohol abuse and the devastation that his addiction caused. Several team members also spoke regarding the changes in the man’s life. It was very powerful and useful for the other participants to see an example of success and the positive, pro-social changes that occurred in the man’s tenure with the program.”

This graduate was a third-time misdemeanor DUI offender who started treatment in the Municipal Court program. It took 469 days for him to successfully complete the program - a typical tenure in treatment courts.

Treatment courts depend on a team, which in the case of the Impaired Driving Court, includes the county attorney, county sheriff and public defender’s offices, Montana Highway Patrol and Billings Police Department. Treatment services are provided through Rimrock Foundation.

Along with sober housing and vocational rehab, medication management has already proven to be key to getting these repeat offenders to stay sober, said Mona Sumner of Rimrock Foundation.

Treatment courts work because the judge has the power to incarcerate participants who fail to follow the program.

“The stick of going to prison is huge,” Knisely said, noting that many participants were in jail when they started the program and can have their probation revoked. “This is their last chance.”

Other treatment courts have reduced recidivism and cut public costs. Prospects for success in this new court are good. We commend Knisely and the other Yellowstone County District Court judges for accommodating this new program. We salute the local law and justice agencies that have joined this treatment team to curb repeat DUI.

Copyright 2014 The Billings Gazette. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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