Aiming for better results, city to launch DUI Treatment Court

Convincing repeat drunk-driving offenders to stop drinking is the mission of a new specialized court that will be announced today by leaders of Philadelphia's judicial community.

The launch of the new DUI Treatment Court is something of an acknowledgment that traditional methods - such as taking away an offender's driver's license or heaping on major fines - have failed to address hard-core and repeat drunk drivers.

The goal of DUI courts, said West Huddleston, chief executive officer of the National Association of Drug Court Professionals, is to "get these people to stop drinking."

Details of the new DUI Treatment Court will be released this morning in a news conference with District Attorney Lynne M. Abraham, Municipal Court President Judge Louis J. Presenza and chief defender Ellen Greenlee of the Defender Association of Philadelphia, among others.

Municipal Court Judge William Meehan will preside over the new DUI Treatment Court, a spokesman for the First Judicial District said yesterday. The court's first day will be June 7.

The announcement comes a week after the judicial community celebrated the 10th anniversary of Philadelphia's successful Drug Treatment Court, aimed at nonalcohol- substance abusers.

The new DUI court will be similar to others across the nation and state. Its target participants will be repeat, nonviolent offenders - that is, those who have not injured or killed someone.

In Philadelphia, the number of DUI cases has increased over the past few years. In 2006, there were 4,781 DUI arrests compared with 4,259 in 2000 and 3,541 in 1998, according to a court spokesman.

The concept - whether aimed at drug abuse or alcohol addiction - is based on Miami's drug-treatment court, the first of its kind, established in 1989. Prosecutors and defense attorneys work together with judges, probation officers and case workers to help addicts through intense treatment and supervision.

According to interviews with Pennsylvania DUI court judges and national experts, DUI courts typically can reduce an offender's prison time but do not eliminate it. Also, an offender's DUI arrest stays on his or her record.

Participants typically stay in the program about 18 months. During that time, they have to appear before the presiding judge on a regular basis, are visited by a probation officer and have to attend Alcoholics Anonymous and counseling sessions.

On average, DUI court clients are in their mid-30s and most are white males, Huddleston said.

In Pennsylvania, six DUI courts have been established since 2003. They are in Scranton, Reading, Pittsburgh, Hollidaysburg, Williamsport and Sunbury.

In Williamsport, Common Pleas Judge Dudley Anderson of Lycoming County said "an increase in penalty has not reduced the number of DUI arrests. We are trying the DUI treatment court to address the disease rather than just the system."

At a recent session of the Berks County DUI Treatment Court, in Reading, Common Pleas Judge Peter W. Schmehl conversed with each participant as he or she was called up before his bench.

Brendan Harker, Berks County's assistant chief probation officer, said the judge plays a key role. "The clients see the court and the system through a different light. "

Jessica Naugle, the court's probation officer, checks on participants at their home at least once a week for random visits. She said what works is participants are "being held accountable."

A participant, Jon, 28, of Reading, who did not want his last name used, agreed. "The discipline" is what has helped him stay away from alcohol, the third-time DUI offender said. *