MANATEE — After a year of group meetings, counseling sessions, weekly appearances before a judge and random alcohol testing, the Manatee County DUI Court Program had its first commencement with three graduates.
The program, a first for the county, is only one of a few in the state that focuses on rehabilitating people with recent DUI convictions by helping them build a support system and staying sober.
As of Wednesday, there were 29 participants enrolled in the program.
Marla Murphy, 29, was one of the graduates inside a courtroom Wednesday afternoon.
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She was the first person to register for the program after she was arrested by a Manatee County Sheriff’s Office deputy in May 2009 for her third DUI in 10 years when she collided with a parked car, according to arrest reports.
There are 190 DUI Court programs throughout the country and only a handful in Florida, said Robert Donnellan, program director.
Participants enter the program after “they plea guilty. It stays on their record. The only incentive is they are sentenced to minimum jail time,” he said. Participants also have no prior record of violent crimes in order to participate.
For Murphy, avoiding jail time was the original incentive, she said.
“At first it seemed like an opportunity to stay out of jail, but as I stayed in the program, I actually saw the rewards of being sober. It became a life changing experience,” she said.
But the program comes with a weekly appearances before a judge, one-on-one counseling sessions, two group counseling sessions, three random alcohol and drug screenings and three outside sober support network group meetings.
If participants fail to show up for one of the weekly meetings, get arrested again or are caught with alcohol, there are sanctions that could lead to the possible termination of their participation the program and jail time, Donnellan said.
One person was led away in handcuffs just before the graduation after she tested positive for alcohol over the weekend.
“We’re not giving up on her,” said Manatee County Judge Doug Henderson. “She’ll be back with us next week. We don’t want people to think this is just a one-way street of rewards, though. This is about accountability.”
Participants have to pay a $175 fee per month to stay in the program.
The program began a year ago and is funded with a federal grant through the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration with a budgeted cost of $230,000 per year, Donnellan said.
Murphy, so far, has been the only participant, to receive no sanctions for showing up to all meetings testing negative.
She had an annual award named in her honor Wednesday afternoon.
Although organizers said it will take years to gauge the program’s success, it’s something Murphy has already experienced.
“I got my family back, rebuilt relationships and regained trust. I got my life back,” Murphy said just before reaching for her 1-month-old son. “I was just determined. I put my mind to it.”
Anyone wanting more information on DUI court can call 749-3670.