Promising Sentencing Practice No. 1

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By C. West Huddleston, Director, National Drug Court Institute (Virginia) and Robin Wosje, Program Attorney, The National Judicial College (Nevada)

This section discusses drug courts in the United States; the success they have experienced, both by reducing recidivism and costs; and how these courts can serve as models for DWI courts. It is recognized that many jurisdictions may not have the resources to fund separate DWI courts. However, if a drug court is in existence, at a minimum, DWI offenders should be eligible to participate in the drug court program. Jurisdictions should also consider the ultimate cost savings they can experience with the implementation of drug courts and DWI courts. Ideally, separate DWI courts should be the goal of the courts for the reasons discussed below.

Stand-alone DWI courts and “hybrid” drug courts that also serve an impaired driving population (DWI/drug courts) are changing the mindset of criminal justice professionals and affecting how DWI offenders are handled. Treatment with intensive supervision works with this population and promises better long-term outcomes through decreased recidivism. While the efficacy of DWI courts has been established, additional studies are currently underway to better define their effectiveness.


Establishment of Drug Courts
For more than a decade, a “quiet revolution” has occurred within the criminal justice system. Dade County, Florida, established the first drug court in the United States. Today, there are more than 1,10010 drug courts across the country, with hundreds more in the planning stage. Although program specifics and populations vary depending on community priorities and resources, the objective of every drug court is the same--to engage defendants charged with drug-related offenses in comprehensive, enduring programs that integrate adjudication, substance abuse treatment, and close supervision.

Drug courts are part of an innovative judicial model in which offenders are held accountable for their actions, but are afforded the tools they need to break the patterns of drug abuse that damage their lives, as well as the lives of others. The major goals of most drug courts have been established with the benefit of both offenders and their communities in mind. Typically, the goals are: (1) to reduce drug use and associated criminal behavior by engaging and retaining drug-involved offenders in treatment services; (2) to concentrate expertise about drug cases in a single courtroom; (3) to address other defendant needs through clinical assessment and effective case management; and (4) to remove drug cases from traditional courtrooms, freeing these courts to adjudicate non-drug cases.


Success of Drug Courts
Today, there is substantial evidence drug courts are achieving what they set out to do. In reviewing some 120 evaluations of drug courts located throughout the nation, the National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse at Columbia University concluded that:

  • Drug courts provide the most comprehensive and effective control of drug-using offenders’ criminality and drug usage while under the court’s supervision. Drug courts provide closer, more comprehensive supervision and much more frequent drug testing and monitoring during the program than other forms of community supervision. More importantly, drug use and criminal behavior are substantially reduced while offenders are participating in drug court.11

Other researchers have similarly concluded that “we know that drug courts out-perform virtually all other strategies that have been attempted for drug-involved offenders.”12

Perhaps the most important finding is that offenders who become part of a drug court program are succeeding on completion of the program. Comparisons with other groups reveal much higher retention rates in the program, and lower recidivism and drug-use rates after the program ends, for drug court participants.13

The most substantial and compelling national study of drug courts to date was commissioned by the National Institute of Justice and released in 2003. This study tracked 2,020 graduates of 95 drug courts in 1999 and 2000 to establish a benchmark national aggregate recidivism rate. It found that only 16.4 percent of drug court graduates were re-arrested and charged with a serious offense after one year and only 27.5 percent were re-arrested and charged with a serious offense after two years.14 (The NIJ study was not a comparative study but a study to establish a “benchmark national aggregate recidivism rate.”)

In 2000 a Vera Institute of Justice report found that “the body of literature on recidivism is now strong enough, despite lingering methodological weaknesses, to conclude that completing a drug court program reduces the likelihood of future arrest.”15


Using Drug Courts as a Model for DWI Courts
If drug court programs can reduce recidivism among the populations they now serve, could the drug court model, applied to a wider network of offenders, have an even greater impact on crime rates? More specifically, could the drug court model work for hardcore repeat DWI offenders?

To date, it has generally been left to the traditional courts and criminal justice system to deal with DWI cases, and it has become clear that the traditional process is not working for repeat DWI offenders. Punishment, unaccompanied by treatment and accountability, is an ineffective deterrent for the repeat DWI offender. The outcome for the offender is continued dependence on alcohol; for the community, continued peril.

A new strategy for fighting repeat impaired driving now exists, however, based on the proven drug court model. These “DWI courts” and “DWI/drug courts” hold offenders to a high level of accountability while providing them with long-term, intensive treatment and compliance monitoring. Currently, there are more than 58 stand-alone DWI courts nationwide, with an additional 30 in the planning stage. In addition, there are some 32 hybrid DWI/drug courts nationwide which are primarily drug courts that also target DWI offenders. Providing system oversight and system accountability, DWI courts and DWI/drug courts monitor the justice and treatment system, as well as the offender.


Objectives and Operation of DWI Courts
DWI courts are distinct court systems dedicated to changing the behavior of alcohol and drug dependent offenders arrested for DWI. The goal of these courts is to protect public safety by attacking the root cause of DWI: alcohol and other drug abuse.

DWI Courts use all criminal justice stakeholders (prosecutors, defense attorneys, probation officers, law enforcement agencies, and others), along with alcohol and drug treatment professionals. These individuals comprise a “DWI court team,” which is usually accountable to the DWI court judge who heads the team. The DWI court team uses a team-oriented approach to systematically change an offender’s behavior. This approach includes identification and referral of offenders early in the legal process to a full continuum of drug or alcohol treatment and other rehabilitative services. Due to the public safety concerns with the DWI offender population, DWI courts are typically post-plea in structure and require a conviction and in many cases, incarceration before entering the program. The post-plea model allows for better community supervision during the program and prosecutorial leverage in the event the participant fails to successfully comply or complete the program. In the event of program failure, the participant would face certain incarceration.

Compliance with treatment and other court-mandated requirements is verified by frequent alcohol or drug testing, close community supervision, and interaction with the judge in non-adversarial court review hearings. During these review hearings, the judge employs a science-based response to participant compliance (or non-compliance) in an effort to further the team’s goal of encouraging pro-social, sober behaviors that will prevent DWI recidivism.16

The missions, objectives, and operations of a drug court that exclusively targets illicit drug abusers, a stand-alone DWI court that targets alcohol or other substance impaired drivers, and a hybrid type of DWI/drug court that targets a mix of DWI offenders and illicit drug abusers are nearly interchangeable. All are part of the drug court model. The structure of the three types of treatment courts is also similar. The advantage of establishing a stand-alone DWI court, however, is that it allows for the development of a more specialized treatment focus and a more case-manageable network of relevant and supportive community resources.


Benefits of DWI Courts
DWI courts shine a spotlight on the triggers and consequences of non-responsible alcohol and drug intake. They embrace the community of victims of DWI incidents and encourage the fair and sensitive inclusion of victim advocates in the treatment process. Most importantly perhaps, they serve as a potential unifying hub for the many agencies and organizations that have been part of piecemeal attempts to fill the gaps in the impaired driver control system.

DWI courts can and should serve as a unifying venue of accountability for the repeat DWI offender. By joining with State motor vehicle departments, governors’ offices of highway/traffic safety, State and local law enforcement agencies, NHTSA, Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD), and other crash prevention and victim support groups, DWI courts can strengthen the justice system’s response to repeat impaired driving.

A DWI court’s coercive power is the key to admitting DWI offenders into treatment quickly and for a period of time that is long enough to make a difference. This proposition is unequivocally supported by the empirical data on substance abuse treatment programs.17 Data consistently show that treatment, when completed, is effective. However, if given a choice, most drug addicts and alcohol abusers will not enter a treatment program voluntarily. In addition, those who enter programs voluntarily rarely complete them. About half drop out in the first three months, and 80 to 90 percent leave by the end of the first year. Among these dropouts, relapse within a year is the norm.18

Accordingly, if treatment is to fulfill its considerable promise as a key component of DWI reduction policy, DWI offenders not only must enter treatment, but also must remain in treatment and complete the program. If they are to do so, most will need incentives that may be characterized as “coercive.” In the context of treatment, the term “coercion”--used interchangeably with “compulsory treatment,” “mandated treatment,” “involuntary treatment,” and “legal pressure into treatment”--refers to an array of strategies that shape behavior by responding to specific actions with external pressure and predictable consequences. Evidence shows those substance abusers who receive treatment through court orders or employer mandates benefit as much as, and sometimes more than, those who enter treatment voluntarily.19

A DWI court is the best vehicle within the criminal justice system for expediting the time interval between arrest and entry into treatment, and for providing the necessary structure to ensure that a DWI offender remains in treatment long enough for benefits to be realized.


Monitoring Success of DWI Courts
Evaluation studies are vital in sustaining DWI court programs. Systems should conduct outcome evaluation studies to demonstrate the effect of DWI courts on the community, to assess relative costs, to assess program benchmarks, and to maintain or seek funding.

Examples of DWI Courts
A number of DWI courts have been operating for several years. Their experience may be helpful to other courts that are considering establishing DWI courts.

  • Anchorage Wellness Court (Anchorage, Alaska) was established in 1999 as a therapeutic court for alcoholic misdemeanor defendants. Participants enter an 18-month program under plea agreements that give them reduced sentences if they complete the program. During these 18 months, they must stay alcohol- and drug-free, be monitored for sobriety, attend treatment for their addiction, take naltrexone for the first four months, attend a cognitive behavior group and Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) meetings, appear before the Wellness Court judge at regular intervals, be rewarded or sanctioned for progress, be employed, pay restitution, and pay most of their treatment costs.
    Nearly all of the participants are repeat DWI offenders, with an average of more than three DWI offenses. The rates of recidivism for graduates of the program are as follows: 0 percent for 2003 graduates and 25 percent for 2001 and 2002 graduates. The cost of participation in the program is less than 10 percent of the cost of incarceration.20 In addition to the misdemeanor Anchorage Wellness Court, Anchorage also sustains a felony DWI court for repeat DWI offenders.

  • Maricopa County DUI Court (Phoenix, Arizona) is funded by NHTSA, the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) and the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA), and has been operating since 1998. After entering guilty pleas, defendants who are assigned to this court must appear in court at least once a month. At each court session, the defendant is required to enter into a contract with the DUI court judge, which details the defendant’s obligations, including abstaining from using alcohol or drugs, obtaining substance abuse counseling and/or treatment, attending AA meetings, reporting to the probation office, and participating in a DUI victims program. The sentencing judge imposes a 60-day deferred jail term in addition to any mandatory incarceration term, to encourage defendants to comply with their contracts. Sanctions for non-compliance with an obligation under the contract may include imposition of some portion of the deferred jail term, as well as community service, removal from the DUI court program, and revocation of probation. The program lasts for one year. After completing the program, participants are placed on additional supervision probation for one year.

  • Athens DUI/Drug Court Program (Athens, Georgia) Offenders with either two DUI convictions within a 5-year period or with three or more lifetime DUI convictions are sentenced to the DUI/Drug Court Program. The post-adjudication program operates on a team concept and involves enhanced supervision, mandatory substance abuse treatment, individual and group counseling, random and frequent drug testing, AA and NA meetings, bi-weekly appearances before the judge for either encouragement for positive participation (incentives) or, if needed, reprimand or sanctions for non-compliance. DUI/Drug Court participants receive services in 5 phases of court supervised involvement. DUI/Drug Court is a minimum period of 1 year and a maximum period not to exceed 2 years based on successful completion of all phases of the program. Except for situations of physical disabilities preventing work, DUI/Drug Court participants shall seek, obtain, and maintain gainful employment and pay a fee for their participation in the program. Presently, participant fee collections total approximately 58 percent of the annual program budget. Successful completion of the program meets treatment requirements for driver license reinstatement by the Department of Motor Vehicles. Since the program’s inception in February 2001, the DUI recidivism rate for participants is 3 percent.

  • Butte County Superior Court (Chico, California) began the ReVia project in its existing drug court in 1996. ReVia (naltrexone) is an opiate treatment that has been highly effective in reducing or stopping the cravings experienced by alcoholics. This court has found that ReVia is a particularly effective tool in aiding the recovery of repeat DWI offenders and making them more receptive to treatment. Therefore, in appropriate cases, it has ordered repeat DWI offenders to take ReVia as part of their sentences. For further discussion, see Promising Sentencing Practice No. 9, Drug Therapy.

  • Rockdale County, Georgia (Conyers, Georgia) has developed a program that combines traditional and alternative sanctions that are individually tailored to the DWI offender’s needs. The program works to ensure consistency by keeping detailed records of the facts of each DWI case including the sentence imposed. It includes a pre-sentence investigation by the judge who uses a database created by the court. Rehabilitative sanctions that may be considered include counseling, victim impact panels, and AA meetings. Probation conditions may include electronic monitoring, random alcohol and drug testing, alcohol treatment, ignition interlock devices, and the seizure of license plates. NHTSA’s evaluation of this program found that offenders in the program had a recidivism rate that was one-half that of offenders in another local program using minimum sentences.21

  • Kootenai County DUI Court (Coeur D’Alene, Idaho) is an alcohol treatment program for persons arrested for their second DWI offense within five years or who have a BAC of 0.20 percent or higher. Potential participants are screened to determine the extent of their alcohol problems and eligibility for the program. People who are accepted into the program must sign a contract for comprehensive alcohol treatment lasting a minimum of 1 year, and are placed on extensive probation supervision and judicial monitoring by the court. NHTSA’s evaluation of this program found that only 4 percent of the participants who completed the program were re-arrested for DWI.22

  • Michigan Sobriety Courts treat alcohol addiction with intense treatment and heavy court supervision, imposing incarceration as a last resort. Offenders must enter a guilty plea, allowing the court to incarcerate an offender for failing to complete treatment. Participants receive 36 weeks of detoxification, urine and breathalyzer tests, AA counseling, and group therapy. They must also meet with a probation officer and an alcohol counselor once a week and with a sobriety court judge once a month. They may retain their driving privileges by installing an ignition interlock system at their own expense.

  • Bernalillo County DWI Court (Albuquerque, New Mexico) has been operating since 1997, with the primary goal of reducing recidivism. It is a voluntary, court-supervised treatment program, which requires regular appearances before a DWI court judge and regular contact with the probation officer. Participants are required to undergo treatment, participate in mandatory drug and alcohol counseling, attend 12-step or other self-help meetings, and submit to random drug and alcohol screening. They are also required to attend a victim impact panel and to complete a specified number of hours of community service. A participant who violates any conditions of the program is sanctioned by a DWI court judge as soon as possible. Sanctions may include incarceration.23

  • Rappahannock Area Alcohol Safety Action Program (RAASAP) DUI Recidivism Court (Virginia) is a cooperative effort that includes the judge, prosecutor, defense counsel, treatment professionals, and RAASAP case manager. This team reviews the progress of each offender in the program. Frequent status hearings are conducted. The DUI court judge is responsible for imposing sanctions; however, any team member may recommend sanctions. The judge readily responds to relapse or other violations with immediate sanctions, including increased frequency of status hearings, increased frequency of alcohol or drug screening, increased case management appointments in the RAASAP office, increased treatment attendance, referral to the ignition interlock program, removal of driving privileges, curfew, community service, or jail.24
10 See Huddleston, C. West, et al., “Painting the Current Picture: A National Report Card on Drug Courts and Other Problem Solving Court Programs in the United States,” Vol. I,
No. 1, National Drug Court Institute (May 2004).
11 See Belenko, Steven R., “Research on Drug Courts: A Critical Review,” The National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse, Columbia University (1998).
12 See Marlowe, Douglas B., et al., “A Sober Assessment of Drug Courts,” Federal Sentencing Reporter, Vol. 16, pp. 113-128 (October 2003).
13 See Belenko, supra.
14 See Roman, John et al., “National Estimates of Drug Court Recidivism Rates,” National Institute of Justice, U.S. Department of Justice (July 2003).
15 See Fluellen, Reginald & Trone, Jennifer, “Issues in Brief: Do Drug Courts Save Jail and Prison Beds?”, Vera Institute of Justice (May 2000).
16 See Loeffler, Michael & C. West Huddleston, “DWI/Drug Court Planning Initiative Training Curricula,” National Drug Court Institute (November 2003).
17 See Simpson, D.D., & Curry, S.J. (Eds.), “Special Issue: Drug Abuse Treatment Outcome Study,” Psychology of Addictive Behaviors, Vol. 11 (1997); Simpson, D.D., & Sells, S.B. “Effectiveness of Treatment for Drug Abuse: An Overview of the DARP Research Program,” Advances in Alcohol and Substance Abuse, Vol. 2, pp. 7-29 (1983); Hubbard, R.L., et al., “Drug Abuse Treatment: A National Study of Effectiveness,” University of North Carolina Press (1989); Center for Substance Abuse Treat ment, “National Treatment Improvement Evaluation Study, Preliminary Report: Persistent Effects of Substance Abuse Treatment – One Year Later,” Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, U.S. Department of Health & Human Services (1996).
18 See Stark, M.J., “Dropping Out of Substance Abuse Treatment: A Clinically Oriented Review,” Clinical Psychological Review, Vol. 12, at p. 93 (1992), as cited in Marlowe, Douglas B., et al., “A Sober Assessment of Drug Courts,” Federal Sentencing Reporter, Vol. 16, No. 1, pp. 113-128 (2003); Satel, Sally L., “Drug Treatment: The Case for Coercion,” American Enterprise Institute Press (1999).
19 See Huddleston, C. West, “The Promise of Drug Courts: The Philosophy and History,” National Drug Court Institute Training Presentation (2000); Breckenridge, J.F., et al., “Drunk Drivers, DWI “Drug Court” Treatment, and Recidivism: Who Fails?” Justice Research and Policy, Vol. 2, No. 1, pp. 87-105 (2000); Satel, Sally L., “Drug Treatment: The Case for Coercion,” American Enterprise Institute Press (1999); “DWI/Drug Courts: Defining a National Strategy,” National Drug Court Institute (March 1999).
20 For further information about the Anchorage Wellness Court, see McKelvie, Alan R., “Anchorage Wellness Court Summary of Facts: 2003 Update,” Justice Center, University of Alaska, Anchorage (February 14, 2004), and “Anchorage Wellness Court: 2001-2002 Summary of Facts,” University of Alaska, Anchorage (April 18, 2003).
21 See Jones, R.K., et al., “Problems and Solutions in DWI Enforcement Systems,” NHTSA (1998).
22 See Crancer, Alfred, “An Analysis of Idaho’s Kootenai County DUI Court,” NHTSA Region X (December 2003).
23 For further discussion, see Guerin, P., “Evaluation of the Bernalillo County Metropolitan DWI/Drug Court,” University of New Mexico Institute for Social Research, Center for Applied Research and Analysis (September 2002).
24 For further information about specific DWI/drug courts, see the DUI Courts Web site (, “Specialized and Problem-Solving Courts – Trends in 2002: DUI Courts,” Keith, Ann L., National Center for State Courts (2002), and “DWI/Drug Courts: Defining a National Strategy,” Appendix A: Advisory Panel Jurisdictions, National Drug Court Institute (March 1999).