MISSOULA — Over the past few months, we’ve been looking at drunk driving in Montana -- from new laws that did or did not pass this past legislative session to ways to make smarter choices when out on the town.
Now we take you to court -- ROAD Court, which stands for Responsibility, Opportunities and Accountability for Drivers. It’s a program for repeat misdemeanor DUI offenders who have not yet reach the felony level for impaired driving -- and the program is one way to keep it that way.
We recently stopped by where a team that includes law enforcement, the Missoula County Attorney’s Office, a probation officer, a criminal defense attorney, a court coordinator, an addiction specialist, and Judge Landee Holloway were all ready to discuss the progress of a class of participants in ROAD Court.
“I see a lot of repeat DUI offenders in my work, and I think it’s a real problematic issue in this state and in this country,” noted criminal defense attorney Abigail Rogers. “And with a client who has a repeat DUI, where did we go wrong in punishing them the last time? And why are we here again?”
That’s a big question the ROAD Court hopes to answer -- and solve through a holistic, team-centered approach to a defendant’s issues with impaired driving that is usually tied to substance abuse issues. The program is designed for what’s called a high-risk, high-need defendant, those who really need some help.
“A lot of them might be very hesitant when they enter the program because it is a lot of requirements in the beginning,” explained ROAD Court coordinator Samantha Arcand. “They’re having weekly check-ins with me, with their probation officer and the court weekly, therapy three times a week and it is overwhelming for people.”
But in exchange for all that, ROAD Court participants don’t have to serve jail time, they can reduce their court fines by 70% --and can have a probationary driver’s license.
The program focuses on accountability, addressing substance abuse issues, and using the team to make meaningful changes rather than just locking someone up and hoping they don’t drink and drive again.
“It gives them the opportunity to wake up to why it’s an issue to continue drinking and driving without having to place them in jail for 30 days or longer in order to get through to folks, Missoula Deputy County Attorney Carrie Garber told MTN News.
“It gives them an interaction with all of the team members and the judge to say yes, ‘I am in compliance with what you ordered me to do’,” Garber continued. “And then it gives the team the ability to reach out to that person and say good job for doing what you need to be doing and what can we do to help if you’re struggling. “
“We work as a team to make sure they have a house and employment. Where are you trying to apply? What resources are you using?” Missoula Probation and Parole Officer Margaret Behan stated. “In the team, we speak about how we can help. How can we also help to better your life so you’re not coming back to me in a year on probation again?”
It's a refreshing approach for Missoula County justice of the Peace Landee Holloway who spent the first two decades of her career as a parole officer. And as a judge, knows this state struggles with drunk driving.
“I think for a long time there’s been a first DUI is a rite of passage. That concept has to change because people are dying on the road or themselves or others,” Judge Holloway said. That’s why this program is all about change and embracing people in our community who’ve made mistakes.
“To be in the court and to listen to people move through -- what’s called the stages of change. Some people are not always ready to make the change but when they start to see the benefits of being sober people have made a tremendous turnaround,” Landee continued. “And made progress.”
“I believe we are making a difference. I think it’s going to be a while before we see that out on the roadway because we’re still seeing people drinking and driving and we’re still seeing those crashes,’ said Montana Highway Patrol Sergeant Sean Finley who is part of the ROAD Court team. “But I do believe, being here personally, I see the difference. It's just going to take us a little bit more time to see it out on the roads.
That difference is underway and to date, there have been 28 people within the program with 14 who have graduated so far. When you listen, you hear the team and the judge talking with ROAD Court participants and it’s clear they really do care about a defendant's success.
“We’re not here as a friend but it’s about accountability and if you want to support their change, you have to be respected and valued for what they’re doing; the effort and the changes they make,” Judge Landee said.