County attorney should end assault on program for felony DUI convicts - East Valley Tribune: Opinion

County attorney should end assault on program for felony DUI convicts

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Posted: Wednesday, March 22, 2006 5:49 am | Updated: 2:57 pm, Fri Oct 7, 2011.

Despite the obvious interest of the state of Arizona — to say nothing of every motorist on its roads — in effective solutions to the problem of drunken driving, Maricopa County Attorney Andrew Thomas appears determined to press his legal and public-relations attack on one that has proved effective. In a commentary published in these pages on March 14, he declared his resolve “to challenge (it) by all lawful means.”

This is the speciality “court” system for Spanish-speaking and American Indian DUI convicts. We place the word “court” in quotation marks because, strictly speaking, the DUI “court” is not a court at all, but a judicial authority set up to supervise the rehabilitation of people already convicted on felony DUI charges who have served jail time. It is modeled on the Drug Court program first developed in Miami, Fla. and Oakland, Calif. in 1989 and 1990.

Before this program was established in 1998, such people were simply turned loose after their jail sentences ended, and they weren’t required to do anything more than show up for a meeting with their parole officer once a month. Repeat offenses under such a lax regime were, of course, quite common.

And in too many cases, repeat DUI offenses have been deadly. The innocent lives lost in horrific alcohol-related accidents were too great a price to pay for continued laxity.

Hence, the DUI “court” — a one-year program geared to ensuring that, after their release, felony DUI convicts stay sober and take responsibility for their actions. Convicts who choose the program enter into a contract to adhere to strict terms of probation such as attendance at regular DUI court sessions, substance abuse counseling, mandatory Alcoholics Anonymous meetings, and the wearing of a high-tech ankle bracelet that detects any drinking. Backsliders can be re-jailed for a night or two or ordered into a residential treatment program — and another DUI arrest can earn the miscreant up to 2 1 /2 years behind bars.

The federally funded program thus addresses those most likely to become or who already are chronic drunken drivers — that is, those whose behavior is most likely to get someone killed on the road. Maricopa County Presiding Judge Barbara Rodriguez Mundell noted its graduation rates in these pages Dec. 12: Nearly 66 percent for the regular DUI court, and fully 88 percent for the Spanish-language one.

Why, then, is Andrew Thomas turning this into a political hobby-horse? His stated reason, that separate DUI “courts” for Spanish speakers and Indians violate the equal protection clause of the 14th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, doesn’t hold water. As we observed here Dec. 22, these programs are separate in order to be equal — in order to give Spanish speakers and Indians as much of a chance to recover from the problems that landed them in jail as are afforded to everyone. And the lower average jail sanction for Spanish-speaking probationers about which Thomas complains is not due to softer guidelines for them, but to their greater degree of compliance with program requirements.

In fact, both Thomas’s ostensible rationale and the references in his column to “DUI defendants,” “disparate sentencing and treatment” and “race-based courts” are disingenuous. Those supervised by the DUI “courts” are not defendants, but convicts. They have been tried, convicted and sentenced by the same courts as any other offenders, and in the same language: English.

Thomas ought to abandon his quixotic quest to climb to eminence on the wreckage of a program so patently in the public interest. It’s unlikely to succeed, and it certainly does him no credit.

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