State court officials in Lafayette are three months into a program designed to wean habitual drunken drivers off of alcohol.
It’s a program that demands sobriety and discipline from offenders who have been convicted of third- and fourth-offense OWIs — operating a vehicle while intoxicated. They’ve all pleaded guilty to their last OWI in exchange for a spot in the 15th Judicial District’s “Sobriety Court.”
For 18 months they’re required to wear alcohol-detection devices, get home before 10 p.m., get drug tested twice a week, check in with their counselors once a week and participate in Alcoholics Anonymous or another support group regularly.
They also are required to visit a judge one night every two weeks for encouragement or admonishment.
In exchange they get to stay out of jail, unless they mess up and fall off the wagon.
“They have a tough jail sentence hanging over their heads,” said 15th District Court Judge Thomas Duplantier, who twice a week sits in judgment of the program’s participants.
Last Tuesday night, 10 third- and fourth-OWI offenders taking part in the program were in Duplantier’s courtroom. They ran the demographic gamut: One woman was 30 years old, had a bachelor’s degree and last year was caught a third time driving after she had gotten drunk. Another, a man in his 40s and heavily tattooed, was a machinist who’d had a very bad weekend but refrained from drinking. Another, a man in his 20s who was having a hard time finding a job, was ordered to an extra eight hours of community service by Duplantier for missing a drug test.
Then there was the 47-year-old University of Louisiana at Lafayette student, a man who in April 2012 got his fourth OWI. On Tuesday he asked Duplantier for permission to participate in a Mardi Gras parade.
The judge was incredulous.
“When you’re in the program, it’s really not a good thing to be around a bunch of drunk people,” Duplantier said. “The answer for you is you’re not allowed to march in a parade. … You have to convince this team that you are clean and sober and show that you understand.”
Duplantier forbade the man from even being in downtown Lafayette during Mardi Gras. “The team believes it’s not good for your sobriety,” the judge said.
Lafayette Parish on Oct. 1 started its first Sobriety Court, a national program that’s been implemented in state district courts in Houma, Monroe, Morgan City, New Iberia and Lake Charles.
Lafayette’s program is being funded by a yearly $150,000 grant from the Louisiana Highway Safety Commission, which received the money from the federal National Highway Safety Board. Lafayette will receive the grant for three years, said Jacob Corbell, specialty court director for the 15th Judicial District. Corbell said the money will run out in late 2017. After that, court officials will have to find another financial source and also rely on a fund that program participants contribute to each month.
Corbell said the program has enough money to accommodate 20 participants at one time. The current class should reach 20 members in March, he said.
Valerie Cox, a representative with Mothers Against Drunk Driving in Baton Rouge, said the organization supports OWI courts that closely monitor participants, test for drugs and alcohol frequently and make sure those in the program are getting outside counseling.
“However, MADD does not support (OWI) Courts if they are used to avoid a record of conviction and/or a licensing suspension,” Cox said in an emailed statement. “While (OWI) courts can be a positive addition, they are not the end-all solution.”
Corbell said that to enter the Lafayette Parish program, third- and fourth-OWI offenders must be nonviolent offenders who have left behind no victims.
They’re monitored around the clock by SCRAM ankle bracelets that detect minute amounts. The slightest whiff of beer, whiskey or wine sends an alert to a counselor, Corbell said.
Complete abstinence is required because the offender is an addict, he said.
“We treat alcoholism and we hold them accountable for getting sober. And what we’re finding is that those who do that are much less likely to drive drunk again,” Corbell said.
Corbell said it’s too early to gauge the impact of the program. He said it’ll take a year or two of measuring the outcomes before officials can grade the program.
On Tuesday, Duplantier told the group he was encouraged by those who in the previous two weeks had confronted life without retreating to the bottle.
The tattooed machinist told Duplantier that he’d had a tough weekend. He’d been laid off and his girlfriend broke off their relationship, he said.
“It was definitely a challenging weekend,” he told Duplantier. “The way I handled it was not the way I would have in the past. … I still feel that anger and that rage sometimes, (but) I’m looking to remove myself from those situations.”