BRADENTON -- A first-time offender caught driving under the influence in Manatee County was getting a six-month license suspension, a $1,300 fine, a visit to DUI school, 50 hours of community service and a year of probation.
Those were stiff penalties, but it still didn’t prevent second-, third- and fourth-time offenders, said Manatee County Judge Doug Henderson.
“We thought the heavy penalties would get their attention, but they don’t,” Henderson said.
In June 2009, Manatee County officials decided to add a voluntary DUI court to its drug court, which was launched in 1997. And these courts are working, the judge says.
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On Thursday, in a ceremony as emotional as any at a high school or college graduation, about a half-dozen new graduates of DUI court and drug court got certificates, coffee cups, a book of reflections and words of encouragement.
Henderson, who oversees the DUI court, was joined by 12th Circuit Judge Charles Williams for Thursday’s graduation at the Manatee County Judicial Center. Other judges, probation and law enforcement officers, therapists, case and medical managers and nurses also help run the courts.
Those who volunteer for DUI court agree to weekly random home visits by a probation or law enforcement officer, weekly one-on-one counseling sessions, three random alcohol and drug tests a week, group meetings, mandatory 12-step meetings, and, on top of all that, they must pay their own $200 monthly program fee.
“The key is that we keep them busy,” said Henderson.
Although it might cut some jail time, DUI court clients still have to serve their mandatory sentences, Henderson said.
Since 2009, 13 people have graduated from DUI court and another 23 are still participating. None of them has another DUI arrest -- evidence that people can change if they have the tools, said Erika Randall, program director of Manatee County DUI Court.
“It is just introducing them to a structured way of life,” Randall said. “There is accountability and responsibility. They meet with their case manager, they have many meetings. It is a bit overwhelming. It’s a long year.”
Unlike DUI court, which is only for DUI clients, drug court, which currently has 101 enrolled, takes in people who have demonstrated non-violent criminal behavior as a result of drug abuse, said Alfred James, Manatee County Drug Court program manager.
James has observed the same positive results when participants have been willing to rewire their lives.
“The most rewarding thing for me to see is someone whose life is ravaged by drugs and alcohol take hold of the program, take it seriously, and move forward in their lives,” James said.
The public can come and witness both drug court and DUI court.
DUI court is held 4 p.m. every Wednesday in Courtroom 2A at the Judicial Center in downtown Bradenton. Drug court is held 10 a.m. every Thursday in the same courtroom.
Richard Dymond, Herald reporter, can be reached at 748-0411, ext. 6686.