Editorial: Creating DUI Courts

Except for the fact that it will result in Windsor County losing a top-notch prosecutor, Vermont Gov. Peter Shumlin’s appointment of Robert Sand to develop alternative sentencing programs for repeat drunken-driving offenders is welcome. The initiative itself holds promise for saving lives and money, and Sand’s appointment to oversee it can only increase its chances of success.

The appointment comes just as Windsor County is on the verge of offering its own “DUI court” — an approach similar to so-called drug courts and one that is becoming increasingly common around the country. In most cases — about 70 percent in Vermont — impaired driving constitutes an isolated incident of criminal irresponsibility that is not repeated. Those cases are best dealt with as conventional law-enforcement matters.

An increasing number of prosecutors, however, have come to the conclusion that the standard criminal-justice approach makes little sense for repeat offenders whose real problem is not an instance of recklessness but something more long-term and fundamental — alcohol abuse. Meting out the standard forms of punishment to those people makes little sense. Because the punishment does nothing to address their drinking problem, there’s a good chance they will drive impaired again and pose a new danger to themselves and others. And multiple DUI convictions eventually land people in prison, an expensive option, especially in cases where the underlying problem is one of substance abuse. And, of course, prison in and of itself contributes nothing toward reclaiming the life of the alcohol abuser.

Like drug courts, DUI courts attempt to identify offenders who pose a high risk of reoffending if they don’t receive treatment. As an alternative to criminal penalties, offenders are required to participate in intensive counseling, substance-abuse treatment and supervision. Those who do not abide by the conditions established by their treatment team flunk out of the program and are subject to criminal penalties. Those who complete the program receive the sort of help that will greatly enhance their chances of living healthy, sober lives. In other words, DUI courts hold the promise of delivering better outcomes at less cost.

The effort that Sand will oversee expands the nascent Windsor County program and will bring that approach to other counties, thanks to a three-year, $300,000 federal grant. Judging by the experience of drug courts — including the one in Grafton County — many who enroll will reoffend. No surprise there, perhaps; substance abuse is notoriously difficult to treat. But enough people will be helped that offering the alternative should prove more than worth its while in rescuing lives and saving needless spending on prisons. And it will further advance the Shumlin administration’s sensible emphasis on reducing the state’s prison population to those who really need to be behind bars.

Meanwhile, Windsor County will lose a state’s attorney who has ably served it for the last 15 years. We have not agreed with every one of Sand’s prosecutorial decisions, but have always been impressed by his thoughtfulness, transparency and candor. He performed a great service to the state when he broke ranks with much of the law enforcement community and challenged policymakers to reconsider whether drug use should be handled criminally — a stance based on many of the same principles behind the DUI courts. Much as his departure will be a loss to Windsor County, a statewide alternative sentencing program for repeat DUI offenders holds enough promise that we are glad that someone with Sand’s skills will head it.