Posted: May 24, 2012 11:07 AM by Laura Wilson (KAJ News)
Updated: May 25, 2012 10:01 AM
KALISPELL- Lawmakers around the state are looking for ways to lower the drunk driving rate across Montana, but DUI arrests are already going down in Flathead County.
Reporter Laura Wilson went on special assignment to find how law enforcement is helping keep the roads safer from drunk drivers.
"I'm only 22, and I got three DUI's and I was scared that I had ruined my life," said Staci Butcher who takes part in the DUI court program.
Officials are still debating how to punish repeat DUI offenders in Montana and while some say jail time is the solution, Flathead County judges are turning more and more to chemical dependency programs instead, as was the case for Kalispell resident Staci Butcher.
"People who are charged with DUI's are our husbands, sisters, mothers, brothers, and fathers. They are us, and they have a substance abuse issue. If we can treat that and get them back into the community, they can be productive community members and also productive family members," Kalispell Municipal Court Judge Heidi Ulbricht explained.
She helped establish DUI treatment court back in 2009 in response to the number of drunk driving charges within Kalispell city limits. So far, 24 people have graduated the program and only one has been charged with another DUI since.
"They're having to be engaged in treatment for at least a year, so that they're able to maintain sobriety. It also provides the community safety because we're doing extensive court monitoring," Ulbricht commented.
"With the first two DUI's, I just went through the hoops and continued to drink through treatment of those first two. This definitely wouldn't have been any different if they hadn't have forced me to get the help I need," Butcher told us.
Flathead County law enforcement officials were recently recognized for becoming one of the first counties in Montana to implement the 24/ Sobriety Program this past October. Similar to DUI court, the program requires repeat DUI offenders to stay sober and stay out of bars.
"It doesn't just mean they can't drink and drive. It means they can't drink. As with anything we do, people do what you pay attention to them doing. So, we're paying attention. We're making sure that they're staying alcohol free and if they can't, they're going back to jail," Flathead County Sheriff Chuck Curry pointed out.
Those who take part in the 24/7 program are required to take a Breathalyzer test twice a day, every day, for the duration of their sentence. Drug testing facilities in the Kalispell area are reporting a more than 99% success rate from the program.
Nearly 5,000 tests have been administered over the last six months and only eighteen of them came back positive for alcohol.
The programs appear to be effective in helping to lower Flathead County's DUI rate. From January to April of 2011, 361 DUI arrests were booked into the Flathead county jail and during that same time period in 2012, 293 DUI arrests were booked, which shows a 29% drop rate in just one year.
"The statistics are showing that the DUI fatalities in Flathead County are decreasing. I'm not going to take total credit because of our program, but we are taking them and giving them the tools. Even in the event that they relapse, they're not getting back behind the wheel and endangering all of us," Ulbricht added.
Beyond the statistics, participants say the program is helping them turn their lives around.
"If I wouldn't have looked at what my drinking has done, I wouldn't have quit because I could always convince myself there was no problem. It's taught me dedication and perseverance and that feeling that I know I can succeed again. This has brought me to life again, and it's a completely different life than I could have imagined," Butcher concluded.
The statistics indicate there are less drunk drivers on the road, but is that what local Montana Highway Patrol troopers are seeing on shift? Join us during the Thursday 10:00 News on Montana's News Station when we take a ride with MHP to find out how safe they think Flathead County roads really are.