Subscribe for 17¢ / day

From her unique vantage on the bench, Missoula Justice of the Peace Karen Orzech has come to several sobering conclusions.

The first: Jail without treatment is not an effective social prescription for dealing with drunken drivers.

The second: Missoula County has no systemwide program in place to effectively deal with adult alcoholics.

The third: Jail will get offenders off the street only for a short while, and when they are released they'll be back behind the wheel again.

The fourth: Drunken driving is a serious problem in Missoula County that is putting the health and well-being of our community at risk.

Orzech shared her thoughts at City Club Missoula's monthly meeting on Monday, and outlined many other concerns about the difficult and thorny topic.

Multiple offenders are people who have an addiction, and by definition, are people who do not think clearly or rationally - and haven't done so for several years, if not much of their adult life, Orzech said.

"When we are dealing with people who have a second or third DUI, often they have been drunks since they were 10 or 12 years old," Orzech said. "Intellectually, they haven't made reasoned decisions and it's why I have 48-year-olds appear in court with their moms, acting like 13-year-olds."

***

Orzech would like Missoula County to make some changes to how we do things. After a field trip last year to Athens, Ga., to watch one of the country's premier DUI courts in action, Orzech is even more eager to help get the change started by talking about the frustrations and weaknesses of our system.

A DUI court, where offenders report weekly to the judge and prove they have been attending treatment is a good place to start, she said. Establishing a DUI processing system that ties the arrest to a person's commitment to treatment - and having prompt placement into treatment - are others.

Orzech is also interested in taking best practices from other communities in the country that encourage defense attorneys and prosecutors to sit down and talk about the best interests of the offender before the case makes it to court.

Increased funding for Turning Point's outpatient treatment program - the only such program in Missoula, which is overburdened and underfunded - is another place for improvement.

"Treatment in this town stinks," Orzech said. "For the size of Missoula, we don't have an inpatient program and we don't have a treatment program in jail, and our intensive outpatient program - there's a waiting list and the people on the list get bumped by the felons.

"In Billings, they have all these things in place."

Treatment is critical for chronic offenders and there needs to be a monitoring system in place to help addicts become sober, she said. "When you are dealing with a brain-damaged person you have to get alcohol out of their system."

***

Orzech said she'd like to change the things she can do from her bench.

"What I see in my court, with second and third DUIs, is that the first one gets pleaded down to DUI per se, which is when you admit to have a blood alcohol level that is .08, but that you are not necessarily impaired," Orzech said.

It's a lesser charge that has no consequences, which she finds frustrating.

"I'd like jail time to be 12 months," she said, explaining not that she would necessarily put someone behind bars that long, but she could maintain jurisdiction over them for that long and ensure they get treatment.

"In our Justice Court, I am not the court of record. Anything done in my court can be appealed," Orzech said. "How effective is that? It's not. And other counties have chosen to have their Justice Court be a court of record."

As Missoula's many civic groups and City Council continues to discuss drunken driving, one significant question looms.

If and when money is put to this problem, what will it fund?

"Where are you going to put it? Will it go to the Department of Corrections or in the community?" Orzech asked. "That's the taxpayers' choice."

Reporter Betsy Cohen can be reached at 523-5253 or at bcohen@missoulian.com.

 

0
0
0
0
0
You must be logged in to react.
Click any reaction to login.