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Montgomery County’s DUI Court Battles Sobering Problem

NORRISTOWN – DUI court in Montgomery County battles sobering problem as authorities seek to get repeat DUI offenders off the roads faster and bring DUI suspects before a judge quicker.

According to judge Cheryl Lynne Austin, DUI is a public safety issue. So everything is done to see that justice is swift to make the streets safer. People should be able to come home late from the movies without having to worry about drunk drivers, says Austin.

DUI Court, spearheaded by District Attorney Risa Vetri Ferman, was implemented in January 2014 in Montgomery County after several years of discussions among judges and prosecutors. According to Ferman, the need behind this was to save lives. If anything can be done to save lives being killed, maimed or injured in horrible DUI crashes, a great service is being done for the community.

The court looked for ways to track and expedite DUIs in an effort to handle drunken driving offenses. DUI has comprised nearly one quarter of the county’s total criminal court caseload, and their goal is to make punishment consistent to get repeat offenders off the road.

Last year, DUI represented about 20 percent of the total dispositions of criminal cases. The figure was recorded at 1,250 DUI cases from a total of 6,199 criminal cases. The Accelerated Rehabilitative Disposition probationary program disposed another 1,087 DUI cases which brought the total number of disposed cases last year to 2,337.

Similarly, the trial division disposed a total of 6,130 cases in 2013, from which DUI cases accounted to 1,355 cases. The ARD program also disposed 1,364 DUI cases, which brought the total number of disposed DUI cases to 2,719, according to county statistics.

DUI cases are now being treated as priority. Before 2014, other violent cases like those involving murder, robbery and rape took priority over DUI cases. The courts and attorneys had so much to deal with, that DUI cases were getting lost in the middle and courts and defenders were not noticing what people needed and the kind of treatment that should be provided to avoid similar incidents from happening in the future.

Since the cases were not dealt with on time, judges, prosecutors and lawyers realized that by the time offenders appeared in court, they had racked up repeat offenses after their first charge.

Because of these problems, DUI cases had to be streamlined into one court where all DUI cases would be heard together, ideally by one judge along with a team of DUI prosecutors to manage all DUI cases the same way in one place. Court is still working on this.

The second step taken to counter drunk driving in the county is to use new tracking methods to find repeaters. Officials in DUI court have reworked the model of monitoring criminal cases. In this model, the unit is run by names so when someone has multiple DUI files, all the files are put together. Previously, anyone with multiple DUIs will have separate files and each file was dealt with separately. Since the cases remained at different levels in the old method, the court could not consolidate them unless the defendant came to court to address all the cases at one time.

Under the new model, the DUI unit reviews the list of defendants every week, to identify cases of multiple DUIs in the system. Once someone with multiple DUIs is found, immediate action is taken to revoke or modify bail. Information is also shared between the DUI unit, local police and district judges about those who have been charged with multiple DUI offenses.

The third step taken in an effort to curb repeat offenders is encouragement of license surrender. Prosecutors are seeking to modify bail for certain offenders by imposing prohibition on driving, pending sentencing. Currently, those convicted of DUI do not have to surrender their licenses until they are sentenced. This step has been taken in an effort to fill the gap between guilty plea and sentencing. The new approach seeks to get the right dispositions in identifying the real problems these drunken and drugged drivers face. The sooner the problem is identified, the quicker the intervention can be.

Public safety is the first goal of the new DUI court. Under the new system, offenders who pose a danger to the public can be addressed quickly as early intervention would minimize any dangers of them re-offending.

With a team of prosecutors handling only DUI cases, it becomes easier for prosecutors to know if a defendant has multiple DUI cases so they can take immediate action. The new system allows the court to track the defendants so they can intervene and provide appropriate treatment at the right time before they could become a risk to public safety.

Moreover, the team approach under the new system lends consistency. With all DUI cases going to one judge, cases with similar facts can be dealt the same way.

Under the new system, court will focus on the law. The county’s DUI court will be better able to track offenders and get them to court faster. Offenders will be kept off the roads, leading to a reduction in the number of repeat offenses.

The court also has a treatment aspect whereby prosecutors address high-risk offenders with multiple cases. Repeat offenders are given incentives so they are able to complete the treatment successfully. These incentives may include early parole.

5-time offender, Nicholas M. Chaban, 54, was identified using the new system and it was clear he needed help. He had to be taken off the roads and needed treatment for substance abuse issues. His case is a classic example of repeat offenders that DUI Court targets for intervention. Using the new system, all five of Chaban’s cases went before the judge on February 6 where he pleaded guilty to four DUI charges and a drug possession charge.

Under the existing law, all of Chaban’s DUIs were being considered a first-offense for sentencing purposes, which had lesser penalties. However, Richman explained that with the new law, repeat offenses are identified which have higher penalties and stricter consequences. Chaban’s total sentence was increased and an additional requirement was put in place that prevented him from being paroled immediately. Meanwhile Chaban remained at the county jail as details of his admission to rehab were being finalized.

According to defense lawyers, treatment is important for repeat DUI offenders, but a number of options should be available for those who are in need of treatment. The presence of repeat offenses is clear that the offender needs help. If they are not given the help they need, the will end up returning to court again, facing increased jail time.

Ferman also said that more research needs to be done to make the entire process more effective. They have to look at other places across the country to see what is more effective so they can keep drunk drivers off the roadways and make the public safe.

News Source: www.PottsMerc.com

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