House approves bill establishing therapeutic court pilot programs

Posted: Sunday, April 08, 2001

JUNEAU (AP) -- Searching for new ways to deal with chronic drunk drivers, the state House on Friday unanimously approved a bill setting up therapeutic courts on a test basis in two Alaska cities.

Therapeutic courts, with an emphasis on intervention, treatment and close monitoring of drunk-driving offenders, would be set up Jan. 2 in Bethel and Anchorage under provisions of House Bill 172. The new courts could handle an estimated 120 offenders annually. They would operate as pilot projects for three years.

House Speaker Brian Porter, R-Anchorage, a former police chief in the state's largest city, sponsored the bill. The measure arose out of recommendations of a task force investigating drunk driving in the municipality last year.

Four out of five convicted drunk drivers never reoffend, Porter said. The bill is aimed at the others, those who continue to drive while intoxicated despite court convictions and jail sentences.

''That remaining one out of five that do come back repeatedly offend because of an addiction,'' Porter said.

Rep. Norm Rokeberg, R-Anchorage, said the therapeutic courts would allow judges to use incentives and disincentives for rehabilitation.

''It gives the judge flexibility to deal with a person one-on-one,'' Rokeberg said.

The concept is based on a model used successfully in New Mexico and tried in Anchorage by District Court Judge James Wanamaker, Rokeberg said.

With the consent of prosecutors, cases could be sent to therapeutic courts at the request of the prosecutor, the defendant or the court. After referral, a defendant would be required to enter a guilty or no contest plea within 45 days of his first appearance.

Jail time or fines could be suspended if offenders successfully complete court-ordered treatment, keep up with restitution payments and comply with sobriety conditions ordered by the court.

Using a carrot-and-stick approach, Rokeberg said, judges can monitor progress and react quickly to relapses.

Supporters say they hope the approach will work with chronic offenders.

''It could be the start of a revolution in how we conduct our court system in this state,'' Rokeberg said.

''I think this is probably the best opportunity we've ever had to try something that is different ... and will have a different result,'' said House Majority Leader Jeannette James, R-North Pole.

The bill carries an estimated price tag of $1.8 million. The bill now moves to the Senate.

State representatives are considering other measures to discourage drunk driving, including lowering the legal limit for drivers' blood alcohol content to 0.08 percent, increasing fines and sanctions for drunk driving, and recriminalizing juvenile possession and consumption of alcohol.

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