DRUNK, BROKE: DUI program preps for big growth spurt
November 15, 2008
By DANIEL BLACKBURN
PART ONE: Gold in the pockets of boozing drivers
While law enforcement prepares the handcuffs, officials are predicting arrests in this county for driving under the influence of drugs or alcohol will set new records this holiday season.
And as a direct consequence, local health professionals will see double-digit percentage increases in revenue wrested from imbibing vehicle operators.
Even one for the road can leave a costly aftertaste these days.
Catching and curing such impaired drivers is big business in California, and San Luis Obispo County is no exception. In fact, health officials here are making plans to accommodate more offenders soon, in even more facilities.
How big is the DUI business? A first-time charge of DUI can cost an individual thousands of dollars to defend; a conviction will total at least $10,000, and probably a lot more. After that first offense, the sky’s the limit, both in financial costs and escalating jail or prison time.
So, should you become part of this county’s ever-growing, on-the-road-while-under-the-influence brigade, you can find solace in your immeasurable contribution to a growing industry – court-mandated drug and alcohol diversion programs. In this county, a judge will likely order a convicted drunk driver into counseling as part of sentencing conditions. This fee-based service is meant to help petty drug and alcohol offenders avoid incarceration. And around here, violators will be directed to the SLO County Public Health Department’s Drug and Alcohol Services.
That isn’t the cakewalk it might seem. Counseling classes, according to some of the program’s so-called “clients,” can be the most trying part of the whole ordeal.
Participation in the program won’t be cheap, either; the self-supporting special revenue DUI fund center has an annual operating budget of about $1.5 million, and officials claim 97 percent of that is paid by program participants. This is one of the few counties in California to operate such a program. While its budget total has remained relatively steady over the past several years, county officials expect the program’s rolls to swell by 10 percent this fiscal year.
And DAS gross revenues should be increasing proportionally. To fund this county’s program, for example, those convicted of a “wet and reckless” charge (driving with a blood alcohol content of less than .08) or young adult first offender will pay about $300 for six 2-hour classes and attend five Alcoholics Anonymous or self-help meetings. An adult first offender will pay $656 and attend twice the number of classes; and repeat offenders will be charged more than $2,000 for an intensive program lasting 26 weeks.
“The increase in revenue is primarily due to increased client visits in the ‘Second Chance’ program,” wrote County Administrator David Edge in his budget report to supervisors last summer.
These are people with two or more DUI convictions, and their numbers are swelling because of increasing law enforcement, according data produced by the county’s Substance Abuse Policy Committee. San Luis Obispo County has a statewide reputation for being tough on drinking drivers, ranking consistently higher in arrest numbers than the California average.
The county’s DUI program is limited to about 2,600 annual adult participants, and 3,400 youthful offenders. It is administered by a staff of 14, nine of whom are classified as drug and alcohol specialists. There are branches in four county locales: San Luis Obispo, Paso Robles, Atascadero, and Arroyo Grande. Nipomo is being considered as a fifth site, thanks to the anticipated hike in DUI arrest revenue.
Specialists conduct educational classes and earn $3,330 to $5,600 monthly. And to their “clients,” they are, for the duration of classes, the most important and powerful individuals in the world.
NEXT: What happens when counselors offend the offenders?