LAWRENCEVILLE - Before Sidney Hester's sixth drunken-driving arrest landed him in DUI Court, he was an "after-hours" alcoholic who drank to relax after a stressful day at work.
Now, through a combination of self-help meetings, random drug testing and group therapy required by DUI Court, the 65-year-old Bogart man has finally recognized his problem and given up booze. Hester said the DUI Court in Athens-Clarke County provided the close supervision he needed to clean up his act.
"If it hadn't have been for the program, I feel that most likely I would still be drinking," Hester said. "I went to court and the judge seated me, and he saw that I really wasn't the type of person that my record indicated I was. He wanted to give me a chance to really try to get my life turned around."
Athens-Clarke County was the first in the state to implement a DUI court in February 2001, but seven other counties have since followed suit - including Gwinnett. There are more than 1,600 DUI courts in the United States, and what once was an unconventional approach is now being used in many states to curb repeat DUI offenders' dangerous behavior.
So far, only eight participants have been chosen for Gwinnett's DUI Court since it started this fall under State Court Judge Joseph C. Iannazzone's supervision. The group members have anywhere from three to nine convictions for drunken driving, said Jeff West, DUI Court coordinator for Gwinnett County. All declined to be interviewed for this article.
The participants must agree to attend court sessions twice a month, go to two group treatment sessions and two self-help meetings a week. They also submit to random alcohol and drug testing on a regular basis. The cost for the program is $200 monthly.
In exchange for participation, the offender's jail time is cut in half, and fines and fees are reduced to mandatory minimums.
If the participant fails a drug or alcohol test, or doesn't attend counseling sessions, sanctions are imposed. Typical punishments range from several hours of community service to jail time.
DUI courts get results
Why offer DUI Court as an alternative?
Officials say that the old method of punishment - fines and jail time - doesn't work when it comes to repeat offenders. They usually fall back to their old pattern of behavior as soon as life returns to normal.
"When it is the person's second, third and fourth offense, it becomes very apparent that it is not working," West said. "You're battling a sick mind. You couldn't stop if you wanted to, unless there is forced intervention."
Statistics show that going through a treatment diversion plan like DUI court reduces the likelihood that drunken drivers will end up back in jail, said Adrienne Bowen, coordinator for DUI Court in Athens-Clarke County. While no statistics are available yet for Gwinnett County, Athens-Clarke has a 3 percent recidivism rate (the likelihood someone will return to correctional custody) for DUI Court participants.
The national rearrest average for DUI offenders in their first year out of jail is 26 percent, Bowen said.
"Most DUI courts implemented across the United States have seen a tremendous benefit in lowering of the recidivism rate," Bowen said. "That's the key indicator that we've been effective in intervening with the substance abuse problem."
Keeping offenders out of jail also translates to taxpayer savings. In Athens-Clarke County, for example, where incarceration costs $47 a day, more than $100,000 has been saved this year by putting DUI offenders through the program instead of locking them up.
A day in court
Gwinnett takes a team approach to DUI Court. Prior to each court session, Iannazzone sits down with West, several defense attorneys, a probation officer, treatment providers, a case manager and a surveillance officer.
They gather at a round table and discuss each participant's progress, much like parents discussing how best to guide their wayward children back on the straight and narrow path.
On Tuesday, they discussed a woman who had started taking Adderall, an attention deficit disorder medication, without getting the court's approval. Doing so was a clear violation of the rules. The group decided to impose four hours of community service as a punishment.
"It would be unrealistic of us to expect people are going to go through this without any bumps," said Iannazzone, who doles out advice and encouragement to participants.
Iannazzone, a soft-spoken man of small stature, strives for a less formal environment in the courtroom. Instead of sitting on the bench Tuesday, he stood on the floor in front of it, and he wore a shirt and tie instead of a robe. He takes time to ask each participant how they're doing and praise them for progress.
"You're not alone out there. There are lots of people out there struggling with this," Iannazzone told the group. "We're all here to help you get through this addiction that you've got."