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Windsor County Prosecutor Robert Sand to Head DUI Court Program

  • "If we can't address the underlying problem (of DUIs), we are dooming ourselves to high recidivism rates." -- Robert Sand (Valley News - Jennifer Hauck)

    "If we can't address the underlying problem (of DUIs), we are dooming ourselves to high recidivism rates." -- Robert Sand (Valley News - Jennifer Hauck) Purchase photo reprints »

  • During a news conference in Montpelier yesterday, Windsor County State's Attorney Robert Sand speaks to members of the media about his new job in the Shumlin Administration. At right is Gov. Peter Shumlin. (Valley News - Jennifer Hauck)

    During a news conference in Montpelier yesterday, Windsor County State's Attorney Robert Sand speaks to members of the media about his new job in the Shumlin Administration. At right is Gov. Peter Shumlin. (Valley News - Jennifer Hauck) Purchase photo reprints »

  • "If we can't address the underlying problem (of DUIs), we are dooming ourselves to high recidivism rates." -- Robert Sand (Valley News - Jennifer Hauck)
  • During a news conference in Montpelier yesterday, Windsor County State's Attorney Robert Sand speaks to members of the media about his new job in the Shumlin Administration. At right is Gov. Peter Shumlin. (Valley News - Jennifer Hauck)

Gov. Peter Shumlin yesterday appointed Windsor County State’s Attorney Robert Sand to serve as a coordinator to introduce alternative sentencing programs for repeat drunken driving offenders across Vermont, in hopes of improving alcohol abuse treatment, limiting repeat DUI offenses and reducing the state’s prison population.

After 15 years as Windsor County’s top prosecutor , Sand will step down in March to join the state Department of Public Safety and help fight what Shumlin yesterday termed the “war on recidivism” in the Vermont criminal justice system.

“Alcohol remains one of the great killers on our highways,” Shumlin said during a press conference in Montpelier. “Repeat DUI offenders have maimed and killed innocent Vermonters for a long time. We can do better, but we have to be innovative.”

So-called DUI courts, which have spread across the country in recent years, operate similarly to drug courts — repeat offenders are offered intense supervision and counseling, and are required to meet regularly with judges and undergo substance abuse treatment. If they succeed, they avoid criminal penalties. If they fail, they are sent to prison. Critics say the current model of charging and penalizing offenders does little to curtail underlying problems and leads to repeat offenses.

Sand, along with other local officials, had helped lay ground work for a DUI treatment docket in Windsor County, the first in the state, which is slated to launch in the coming weeks, he said. In his new position, funded by a federal grant, Sand will work with other prosecutors to bring similar programs to other state courts.

“It has been clear to me for some time that if we can’t address the underlying problem, we are dooming ourselves to high recidivism rates,” Sand said. “There is a large population for whom government has an opportunity and an obligation to see if we can help make them better and see if we can help them overcome their addiction. This is too good a model, and too cost effective, to confine solely to Windsor County.”

By the end of March, Shumlin said he will appoint someone to serve the remainder of Sand’s four-year term, which expires in November 2014. The governor demurred when asked about a possible replacement for Sand yesterday. While state’s attorneys generally reside in the counties where they work, there is no legal residency requirement. (Technically, the law does not require a state’s attorney to be a licensed attorney, either.)

Sand, a 54-year-old Woodstock resident and graduate of Hamilton College and Vermont Law School, gained statewide attention in 2007 when he publicly advocated for the decriminalization of marijuana, a stance that he continued to quietly push in subsequent years. And Sand has been a close observer of policy and political developments in Montpelier: After the press conference, Sand conceded that, as years went on, his interests began to roam beyond the White River Junction courthouse.

“Increasingly, I found that my thinking is broader than just prosecuting cases,” Sand said in an interview.

Sand said he will make roughly $90,000, taking a small pay cut from his current position. The move is not without risk, however. Sand will go from being the top cop in his jurisdiction, overseeing four deputy prosecutors and wielding the final word on how all manner of cases are prosecuted in the county, to a bureaucrat with few enumerated powers. State’s attorneys are independently elected by county voters and do not answer to the state officials. Sand said he viewed his new job as a “utility infielder” who would assist prosecutors and judges too busy with their daily case load to set up a DUI docket.

Many defendants charged with DUI would not be eligible for the program. Officials will target repeat offenders with underlying addiction issues.

Roughly 70 percent of people charged with a DUI do not repeat the offense, Sand said. Typically, defendants invited onto the DUI docket will have been charged with at least a second DUI, and will have registered a blood-alcohol level at least twice the legal limit, Sand said.

In 2011, 529 Vermonters were convicted of repeat DUI offenses, according to the Vermont Department of Corrections.

“You can’t have a conversation about DUI, or drugs, without talking about treatment,” Vermont State Police Col. Tom L’Esperance said during the news conference. “We will be watching very closely.”

Shumlin billed Sand’s hiring as another step in what he touts as a successful effort to reduce repeat crimes and tame the exploding Department of Corrections budget. According to the DOC, the number of inmates under 21 years old has dropped from 1,306 to 938 since 2010. It costs $54,000 to incarcerate an inmate for one year in Vermont.

The grant, through the federal Highway Safety program, runs for three years and totals roughly $300,000, officials said. By then, Sand said, he hopes to have DUI courts available to defendants in every county in the state.

“I am confident that it will ultimately save more money than it will cost,” Sand said.

Mark Davis can be reached at mcdavis@vnews.com or 603-727-3304.