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Spokane City DUI Court Provides Support System For Enrollees

Doug Nadvornick/SPR

The city of Spokane’s new DUI court is a voluntary program for those convicted of Driving Under the Influence.

“A DUI court is an intensive therapeutic court and it’s intended to assist a person through treatment and getting into recovery," said Tracy Staab, the court's presiding judge.

“Intensive supervision means they meet with their probation officer once a week. They’re in treatment three or four times a week. They’re taking self-help classes twice a week. In our court, they have to meet with mental health counselors if they have diagnosed mental health issues. They’re in court every two weeks. They’re on a constant alcohol monitor. They’re getting UA’d — a random drug test — eight times a month. So, very intensive,” Staab said.

This is one of a handful of focused courts in the city of Spokane. There’s also one for veterans. There’s a mental health court and a community court for petty crimes that recently expanded to a second location. Spokane County has a DUI court as well.

The city’s DUI court is wedged into a small room in the Courthouse Annex on the Spokane County campus. It’s been operating for about three months and, so far, has about a half dozen enrollees.

Staab says we’ll see three defendants today. One will enter a plea. The other two have already pled guilty and will check in as part of their required program.

“So when a person pleads in a DUI court, they’re getting their charges reduced to a first-time offense, but we set the term of probation at 60 months, five years, which is the maximum we’re allowed to do," Staab said. "We tell people you can reduce that 60-month probation period by doing the work you’re supposed to do. The minimum time period for getting through this program is 18 months, but that assumes you do everything right from the very beginning.”

These defendants are in the first of five phases of the program, where it’s about stabilizing their lives and getting them into treatment.

“So we’re looking at jobs, housing, education, if that’s an issue, child care. We have them put together a child care plan. We have them put together a transportation plan, because most of these people are struggling with their drivers’ license. Many of them have their drivers’ license revoked. Can they get their license back? What’s that going to take? And if they can’t, what’s their alternatives?” Staab said.

In the courtroom, two tables sit in front of Staab’s elevated perch. Assistant prosecutor Joni Morse and probation officer Hans Horstketter are at one table. The second is for defendants and their lawyers. On each side of the room are two rows of benches where spectators can watch.

Staab questions the program participants about where they are in their lives. Are they having issues? She confirms details with the court staff and a police officer assigned to DUI cases.

And then a young woman comes forward as the third defendant. Staab reads the charge and asks for a plea.

“Guilty,” she said.

Prosecutor Morse asks that the judge impose a recommended sentence, a year in jail with all suspended but 15 days of home monitoring. The woman also agrees to enroll in the DUI court. The judge turns toward her public defender, Nick Antush, who tells the judge his client is only 23.

“It's surprising that she would be entering a DUI court at that age," Antush said. "However, I represented her on her first DUI charge in 2016 and on a prior charge a few years before that. I think she’s a good candidate. I think it’s appropriate to get her in here now to deal with the issues that she’s been struggling with.”

Staab imposes the sentence, gives the woman a little pep talk and reassures her that the court is there to support her. With that, she drops the gavel and the court adjourns for the afternoon.

As people file out, Morse and Horstketter say the new DUI court carries benefits for both defendants and the community. The enrollees get reduced sentences in exchange for support in their efforts to stay sober.

“With a high emphasis on supervision, treatment and just general recovery, not just sobriety, not temporary putting a band-aid on it, but actually fixing the problem,” Morse said.

And the public gets an “emphasis on public safety, reducing DUI recidivism and these courts save taxpayers money because there’s less jail time,” Horstketter said.

“The city of Spokane police department was able to get a grant to have some officers specifically focusing on DUIs, so we knew we were going to have more DUIs coming through our system and more DUIs that we wanted to keep within the city to focus on prosecuting," Morse said. "We really wanted to emphasize in this court that we’re using best practices and that we’re using evidence-based practices and the only way we can ensure that’s happening with our city cases is by creating our own city DUI court.”

“Studies have shown and evidence has shown that that’s what gets people into recovery," Judge Tracy Staab said. "Ultimately, at the end of the day, that’s what we want. As a community, that’s what we want. As human beings, that’s what we want and we want to help this person succeed as well. We all benefit when this defendant is in recovery.”

As for those who think this is an enabling type of court…

“This is not the easy way out," Staab said. "It is easier just to do the jail time, get it over with and then go on from there. Anybody who’s been through a program like that will tell you that.”

With the city putting a renewed emphasis on apprehending drunk drivers and after spreading word about the court, Prosecutor Morse expects enrollment in the program will continue to grow.