The Blaine County commissioners are backing a plan to curb drunk driving, taking the first steps toward setting up a court program dedicated to rehabilitating those convicted of DUIs.

The board tentatively agreed to pick up the nearly $77,500 tab for a 5th Judicial District employee to run the so-called “problem-solving court,” basically a rigorous form of parole designed to reform repeat offenders and others who can’t change their behavior through the traditional program.

Tuesday’s soft commitment from the commissioners kicks off a long process to get a DUI court up and running—at least a one-year timeline, if it can get going at all.

Though an Idaho statute backs the programs—the state was a frontrunner of problem-solving courts in the early 2000s—there isn’t much money available to pay for slots, according to 5th District staff. The court has one employee covering its DUI programs in Twin Falls, Jerome and the Mini-Cassia area. He can handle about 25 participants, who typically have to meet with staff once a week.

Blaine County has one problem-solving court in place now, a similar program for drug offenders. It’s run by a volunteer, Sonja Wilander.

“For four years now, our No. 1 [budget] re-quest has been additional money for our problem-solving courts,” Trial Court Administrator Shelli Tubbs said. “If to-morrow, Mrs. Wilander decided not to volunteer her time, we don’t know whether we’d be able to operate in Blaine County. We’re just spread so thin.”

District Problem Solving Court Manager Rich Neu plans to ask the state Supreme Court for more funding, though he expects they’ll have to get creative to launch a Blaine County program that meets local needs.

From August 2018 until August 2019, the court charged 180 Blaine County residents with driving under the influence, including nine felonies. Another 31 came from Lincoln and Camas counties.

“Based on the population we have up here, this justifies further intervention,” Neu told the board.

According to Neu, DUI court is a much more effective intervention than standard parole—and its track record in the district bolsters his claim. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration estimates a 30 percent recidivism rate among those convicted of DUIs—though, it notes, that number may be conservative. That’s because drunk drivers are rarely caught; the NHTSA estimates that a driver has between 200 and 2,000 “impaired driving events” before an arrest. Eight years ago, Neu posed the 200 number to DUI court participants in Twin Falls. He wanted to know if they thought it was accurate.

“They laughed,” he said. “It was much higher.”

Among graduates of the 13-year-old Twin Falls program, recidivism is 13.3 percent, Neu said—less than half the expected rate. In Jerome, where the court is three years old, it’s 1.9 percent. Mini-Cassia has been operating for 20 months, and hasn’t seen any repeat offenses.

Not everyone is a candidate. To qualify for the optional program, you have to plead guilty, and apply. Typically, spots go to excessive DUIs—meaning someone caught with a blood-alcohol content of 0.20 or higher, more than twice the legal limit of .08 percent—or second offenders.

Blaine County alone could use 25 or 30 year-long slots, Neu said. To get there, he’ll need to get a huge range of county stakeholders on board.

He’s off to a good start. On Tuesday, Chief Public Defender Justin McCarthy backed the board’s effort. So did District Judge Ned Williamson and Magistrate Judge Jennifer Haemmerle.

Haemmerle sentences most of the county’s drunk drivers, including second-offenders. She strongly supports adding DUI court to keep people out of her own courtroom, for drunk driving as well as the issues that come with problem drinking, such as domestic violence.

“It’s not about coddling someone, or keeping them out of jail,” she said. “It’s about, how can we keep them safer? The people who come back to my court, it’s not just problem drinking. It’s people who have mental-health issues—issues of depression, post-traumatic stress, trauma at home. There’s not one profile, but what they have in common is they aren’t able to make these lifestyle changes by themselves. We have people who need more. They need to be touched by the court system every week. They need that accountability, because they’re in a cycle they can’t punch out of.”

Email the writer: mdee@mtexpress.com

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