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DWI–Criminal Justice Minute

DWI is a crime that anyone who drives, rides, bicycles and walks on Texas roads should be concerned about. Texas law provides that a first DWI conviction is punishable by up to 6 months confinement, $2000 fine, court costs and driver’s license suspension for up to one year. A second DWI conviction is punishable by up to 1 year confinement, $4000 fine, court costs and driver’s license suspension for up to two years. A third DWI conviction is a felony punishable by 2-10 years imprisonment, a $10,000 fine and driver’s license suspension for up to 3 years. The first and second DWI’s are adjudicated in our misdemeanor county criminal courts-at-law.

Many of our misdemeanor DWI cases involve probation or community supervision for one to two years, with no early termination. Most of these cases end successfully and defendants no longer re-offend. A good thing for public safety!

But for a DWI probationer or former probationer who re-offends or continues to violate conditions of probation, we have a special intensive program for them called SOBER court. Saving Ourselves by Education and Recovery is a state-sponsored high intensity program designed to closely monitor the probationer’s recovery and rehabilitation, and to reward compliance and penalize non-compliance. It is a four phase program in which probationers work to progress from phase to phase, with each succeeding phase requiring less supervision and providing more liberties for the probationer. In each of the first 2 phases probationers meet with the judge twice a month for a “check-in” where their program is evaluated, compliance rated, and rewards and sanctions are given. In Phase 3 the probationer meets only once a monthly with the judge. In Phase 4, the probationer meets only with the probation officer as needed. SOBER Court clients must provide breath and urine specimens whenever asked, and many must use alcohol detection devices during unsupervised hours. SOBER Court clients may earn the right to drive again in later phases of the program.

We have 5 SOBER courts – one court for all women, one court for all men, one court for all Spanish speakers, one court for probationers who can only meet with the judge after work, and one court for youthful probationers. Each SOBER Court is run consistently from court to court, and with National DWI Court guidelines that have been approved by the American Bar Association.

SOBER court teams consist of a judge, a Court Supervision Officer from the probation department who works only with that court’s 30-35 probationers, a defense attorney to confidentially consult with them as needed, a prosecutor to represent the State’s interests, a therapeutic consultant with the probation department, and two bailiffs assigned to that court. The bailiffs are authorized in writing by the probationers and the court to make unannounced home visits and welfare checks as needed. Harris County’s SOBER Courts are a national model consulted by jurisdictions seeking to begin DWI Courts like ours.

I am honored to be part of this amazing program because we accomplish two big things: we facilitate our clients’ return to sobriety, which helps them both personally and professionally; and we help improve public safety one driver at a time.

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