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Tuesday May 24th, 2016 2:00PM

DUI court commemorates 10 years in Hall County

By Kelsey Williamson
The Hall County DUI court celebrates its 10th anniversary on Thursday, and over the past decade, the program has been able to reduce repeat DUI offenses by almost 10 percent.

The court began as one of three pilot programs for DUI courts in Georgia after the state saw the success of other drug courts around the nation.

Presiding Judge Larry Baldwin noted that the county was one of three selected areas, including Athens/Clarke County and the Savannah area that received grant money to start the DUI program.

"They selected the three areas to see if we would be interested in it, and one of the main goals is to reduce recidivism - how many people get DUIs - and try to keep them from getting new DUIs. We were in favor of that so we decided to take part," Baldwin said.

Over the first three to five years of the court-mandated program for repeat offenders, Baldwin and then-presiding Judge Charles Wynne saw recidivism in the region reduced by almost 10 percent, even though offenders do not necessarily like the program.

"Most of them don't like the program when they first come in because it is a very strenuous program," Baldwin said. "It is post-conviction, meaning they have to be found guilty or plead guilty to DUI, and they still get their sentence, including a fine and jail time, but then they have to go through the program.

"We hope that alone is helping to reduce the number of people who choose to drink and drive."

The program is 15 months long and the participants must go through treatment, attend Alcoholics Anonymous meetings, go to court meetings with Baldwin, and call a phone number each morning to find out if they have to go in for random drug and alcohol screenings.

The court has been successful at reducing incidences of DUIs, but other problems have developed in the past couple of years that require alterations to the program, such as increasing occurrences of driving under the influence of prescription drugs.

"We've noted that over the last couple years it has become an increasing problem, and when we first set up our program it was more thinking of the drinking and driving, so we've had to make changes," Baldwin said. "We hope to get the information out that even if you have a prescription, it's still not legal to drive while you're impaired by prescription drugs."

The frequency of these offenses has mandated a change in the court's drug screening procedure in order to detect the drugs in the system.

"We don't just screen people for alcohol," Baldwin said. "We actually take a urine test, and we have a lab here in Hall County that can test it for a number of different substances including some drugs, and then we also often send it out to a lab so that we can do a full panel and just try to find out what, if anything, our participants are using."

Baldwin and the DUI court will continue to improve their programs and procedures for the future in hopes of bringing these offenses down even more.

"I'm very committed to this program," Baldwin said. "I find it rewarding because a lot of times as a judge, you sentence someone and then you don't know if they succeed or fail in the future. With this program, I get to see these DUI offenders at least once a month if not twice a month for the full 15 months and see how they progress, and I find that to be rewarding."

As for the 10th anniversary, the DUI court will commemorate the event by graduating 12 people from the program on Thursday.

"We're going to have our graduation on that day, and I've asked Judge Charlie Wynne who was the original judge for the DUI court program and, in fact, was the sitting judge for that program for the first eight years, to come and speak to our graduates," Baldwin said. "I want to recognize him because he put a lot of hard work and effort into the program."
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