By David Wallace, NPAMC CEO
Thirty years ago, January 2, 1985, I walked into a courtroom located in Eaton County, Michigan, a newly appointed assistant prosecuting attorney (APA). I was eager to start enforcing the laws of Michigan, and make my community a safer place to live and work.
Initially, the vast majority of the cases I handled were drunk driving charges. Other cases a new prosecutor handled at that time were domestic violence charges. While these cases each had their own challenges, I began to see a common factor between the drunk driving and domestic violence cases. Both typically involved a defendant misusing alcohol. A large percentage of domestic violence cases occur after someone has misused alcohol.
Alcohol Misuse and the Criminal Courts
As time passed, I saw a general pattern in the criminal justice system; alcohol misuse was a contributing factor to many of the crimes charged. While not an excuse for committing a crime, alcohol misuse was occurring. The vast majority of the public drink responsibly, however, there is a small group of individuals who misuse alcohol, commit crimes, and end up in jail.
Back during that time, to get someone to stop drinking when a law was violated, the answer was easy, send the person to jail or prison, without looking at the underlying reasons. It was a simple response and for many, it was an ineffective one. Many times the person returned to the court system with a new charge or a probation violation. Jail alone does not change addictive behavior. States across the country have thousands and thousands of repeat offenders, persons who did not learn their lesson from jail or prison, because of a dependency to alcohol.
When I was the director of the National Center for DWI Courts, I came to understand that while jail is an important tool, it is not the end all be all for changing addictive behavior. In fact I came to understand that treatment and the courts can work together to create change in individuals.
Learning What Works is Critical
It was during this time, I started seeing a new dynamic – a number of individuals and organizations trying to find effective methods to change behavior for those who are abusing or addicted to alcohol and committing crimes. In some ways, Drug Courts and DWI Courts started a revolution: working together, and addressing the underlying problems to ultimately change behavior. As a society and in this case, more importantly, in the criminal justice system, we are re-learning what works and doesn’t work to change behavior.
Evidence-based practices are becoming the catch phrase now – but what is evidence based and what is not? As proponents with different perspectives but similar goals, what actions and research-based programs can we agree are necessary to make a difference? What are the areas of consensus that we can all agree on? These are important questions that NPAMC tries to find answers and then promote.
Together We Can Make a Difference
Some efforts such as Drug Courts, DWI Courts and Ignition Interlocks have research showing a proven track record. Others programs such as HOPE (Hawaii’s Opportunity Probation with Enforcement) and 24-7 are showing promise from initial research, and should be supported and further examined. But one thing is clear, that no one program is sufficient – it will take a comprehensive approach and it will take voices from every profession and walk of life to speak out on what we can all agree. Using a comprehensive approach on what we all agree, allows us to quickly and efficiently identify and implement strategies that address the offenders’ alcohol issues, better protect the public, and save tax dollars and resources.
I invite you to explore our website and participate in our efforts. Together, we can revolutionize the way the justice system handles offenders. Together we can make our communities safer places.