Judges Plead Case for County DUII Program

Article excerpt

Byline: Karen McCowan The Register-Guard

For the second time in six weeks, all of Lane County's circuit court judges are publicly warning that the county's spending cuts "directly endanger" the safety of its residents.

This time, however, judges in seven area municipal and justice courts have joined the 15 state- employed Lane Circuit judges in signing a letter urging the county to rethink its decision to eliminate its 27-year Alcohol and Drug Evaluation Service.

County officials last week announced plans to stop using county mental health workers to evaluate thousands of drunken drivers each year for referral into a variety of local treatment programs. The evaluation service is theoretically funded with fees from participants arrested on alcohol-related criminal charges. But it is on track to lose at least $130,000 this year, according to Lane County Mental Health program manager Al Levine. He blamed the economic recession, which has left many DUII defendants unable to pay the $150 evaluation fee. He also blamed a county jail bed shortage that has emboldened some drunken drivers to defy court treatment orders because they are unlikely to face serious sanctions. The county's decision last year to close more than 200 jail beds for lack of funds for jail staff prompted the state court judges' first letter of concern last month.

In a letter drafted by Presiding Lane Circuit Court Judge Mary Ann Bearden to the county budget committee, 22 area judges said the county's Alcohol and Drug Evaluation Service has a track record of providing "efficient and effective coordination between the courts and the treatment providers" and "competent and fair referral services that ensure the continuation of DUII treatment services for citizens throughout the county."

In an interview Monday, Bearden stressed that all county residents, not just those arrested for driving while impaired, have a stake in keeping a proven system in place.

"Nothing can be closer to the front of our minds as the importance of treatment for alcoholism regarding driving," she said, referencing a deadly alcohol-related crash last week for which a man faces charges in the deaths of two children, two women and critical injuries to a third child.

"In 2008, more than 1,900 Lane County citizens received alcohol and drug evaluation and referral to treatment," Bearden wrote in a open letter to the Lane County Budget Committee signed by 22 area judges. …