Those who are repeatedly charged in McHenry County with driving under the influence of alcohol could soon find they have a chance to avoid prison in lieu of intensive probation.
Similar to McHenry County’s drug court, the new DUI court will hear the cases of people struggling with alcohol abuse who have racked up several DUI charges, McHenry County State’s Attorney Patrick Kenneally said. He said many repeat DUI offenders eligible for the specialty court are not typically in the court system for any other reason than having an issue with alcoholism and driving.
“Data shows if you can treat them for the underlying [issue of] alcoholism it is much safer for the roadways because they are much less likely to recidivate than sending them to prison,” Kenneally said. “So this is sort of a last chance intensive probation, it’s an incredibly intensive probation, just like drug court.”
The need for a DUI court in the county was expressed in a memorandum of need in 2018. In part, the memorandum compared the success of the county’s drug court in rehabilitation, instilling recovery and strengthening community bonds to what is the expected result of the new DUI court.
“McHenry County averages about 760 DUI arrests each year. In 2015 alone, it was estimated that alcohol-impaired drivers in McHenry County were involved in 153 car crashes, four deaths and over 70 injuries,” according to information provided by McHenry County State’s Attorney’s office in a statement of need.
“In Illinois, approximately 30% of those arrested for DUI have a prior DUI arrest. There is reason to believe that this staggeringly high recidivism rate is only a scarce account of actual recidivism. It has been estimated that a person can drive impaired between 200 and 2,000 times before being arrested once,” according to the statement of need.
The new court begins at 2:30 p.m. Wednesday in Courtroom 203. The cases will be presided over by Circuit Judge Michael W. Feetterer.
The new program can only accept up to 35 defendants and currently 16 have been selected.
This is the second DUI specialty court in Illinois.
Proponents of DUI court said this is the most successful strategy for holding repeat, impaired drivers accountable while ensuring they receive lifesaving treatment. In 2013, the National Transportation Safety Board endorsed DUI Courts as a proven strategy for rehabilitating repeat DUI offenders, according to the National Center for DWI Courts.
In its safety report on eliminating impaired driving, the NTSB voted unanimously to issue bold recommendations to help the U.S. reach zero impaired driving fatalities and eliminate alcohol-impaired driving.
The McHenry County DUI Court program is funded by a federal grant from the U.S. Department of Justice.
Those eligible for the specialty court must be 18 years or older at time of the arrest, charged with a felony DUI offense, be a McHenry County resident, meet diagnostic criteria for substance use disorder, must have a limited criminal history and the offense must not have resulted in the injury or death of another person.
The DUI court requires that those charged with a felony DUI offense enter a guilty plea, with the sentence deferred until the completion of the program.
Requirements of the probation also include mandatory, biweekly court appearances, being employed, engaging in counseling and programs to build job and life skills, maintaining sobriety, meeting with clinicians and probation officers and submitting to random alcohol testing.
Failure to comply with these requirements could result in being sent back to court and facing sentencing, officials said.
“This project has been a collaborative effort between the State’s Attorney’s Office, the McHenry County Defense Bar, the Judicial System and Court Services,” said Jason Sterwerf, director of the Office of Special Projects. “The Office of Special Projects is enthusiastic to have been part of the development and creation of the newest problem solving court. The DUI court will offer opportunities for clients to address substance use issues, mental health needs and personal life issues that often lead to regretful decisions.”
Local defense attorney Henry Sugden would not disclose their names, but said he has “a couple” of clients already accepted into the program.
“It is a very good program,” Sugden said. “The idea is to help get people off of their addiction.”
He said like mental health and drug court, he expects the DUI court to be “successful.”
Sugden said the court is an intense program that runs about a year and a half and involves lots of meetings and time commitments. It is hard to get into and only a limited number of defendants are being accepted at this time, but if they do get in “it’s worth it,” Sugden said.
He said his clients welcome the intensity of the program because it gives them the tools they need to stay sober, keeps them out of jail, allows them to not lose their license permanently and “is a light at the end of the tunnel.”
Sugden only hopes that once the program is established, they will be allowed to accept more candidates.
“I think you’ll get good results,” he said.
The Alliance Against Intoxicated Motorists also supports the new court.
“We are proud of Patrick Kenneally and his staff for implementing [a DUI] court program,” said Cathy Stanley, director of court monitoring for AAIM. “It takes a lot of time and dedication to run a program such as this and we totally support their efforts. AAIM’s mission statement is all about road safety and helping people make good decisions by not driving impaired.”