DUI Court and First-Offender Programs

Special programs designed to rehabilitate rather than punish DUI offenders.

It’s often said that one DUI is a mistake, but more than one is a pattern. A DUI conviction will undoubtedly lead to certain penalties. However, some states have special programs designed to monitor and rehabilitate DUI offenders. These programs go by different names such as “DUI court,” “drug court,” and “DUI first-offender programs.” But, generally, participants in these programs can avoid at least some of the consequences that would otherwise result from a DUI conviction. This article outlines some of the benefits, drawbacks, and nuances of DUI courts.

Who’s Eligible for DUI Court and First-Offender Programs?

DUI court eligibility varies depending on the program. With first-offender programs—such as Oregon’s DUII diversion program—the offender can’t have any prior DUI convictions within a certain period of time to be eligible. Most other DUI court programs are specifically designed for repeat offenders. So, these programs only accept applicants who have prior DUI convictions. DUI courts often have other eligibility conditions such as requiring that participants have no criminal history involving violence or drug sales.

What’s the Difference Between DUI Court and Normal Criminal Court?

In criminal court, the defendant is typically trying to haggle for a good plea deal or beat the charges altogether. In either scenario, it’s an adversarial battle between the defense and prosecution. Defendants are pushing to minimize or eliminate the consequences of their conduct, while the prosecution is making efforts to ensure defendants are adequately punished.

With DUI court and first-offender programs, on the other hand, the defendant normally admits to driving under the influence and agrees to abide by the conditions of the program. Program requirements are typically the same for all participants. So, unlike with plea bargaining, there are no negotiations related to the consequences the defendant will face; the defendant simply accepts the requirements of the program and, in exchange, is able to avoid certain penalties that would otherwise result from a DUI conviction.

With DUI court programs, the focus isn’t on punishing the participants. Instead, these programs encourage continued employment and substance abuse treatment. The goal of these programs aims is to create long-term sobriety habits using therapy and intensive supervision.

Some states have a mandatory DUI Court program for repeat offenders. For example, Georgia makes completion of their Risk Reduction course a requirement for all repeat DUI offenders and includes a comprehensive assessment screening followed by a 20-hour intervention course. The offender’s license is also suspended until he or she successfully completes the Risk Reduction course.

DUI Court Pluses

Successful participants in a DUI court or first-offender programs receive certain benefits. The main draw for many DUI court participants is the avoidance of jail time. DUI repeat offenders are typically looking at a substantial amount of time behind bars if convicted. By participating in DUI court, these offenders can minimize or eliminate altogether time spent in jail.

Many DUI court and first-offender programs also include license-related privileges. For example, offenders who enroll in Michigan’s’ Sobriety Court program are allowed to drive during the license suspension period.

With many first-offender programs, participants who complete the program earn a dismissal of the criminal DUI charge. In other words, these participants won’t end up with a conviction on their criminal record. Having a clean criminal record, of course, makes it easier to find and keep employment.

DUI Court Minuses

First-offender programs typically don’t have many onerous requirements. These programs generally include some sort of substance abuse evaluation and treatment or education program but not much else. Essentially, first-offender programs are designed to give people a second chance without requiring a lot.

DUI court for repeat offenders, in contrast, typically requires quite a bit from participants. DUI courts generally require a long-term commitment to participation in substance abuse treatment, drug and alcohol testing or monitoring, and close court supervision. For example, the program in one state is 72 weeks long and requires participants to complete 90 days of a therapy group, 90 days of substance testing, and various educational classes. Individuals in the program must also maintain employment, abide by a curfew, and use an ignition interlock device in their vehicle.

Generally, defendants who fail to successfully complete a first-offender or DUI court program face the standard DUI penalties.

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