LUMBERTON —Three people were given a chance to avoid felony DWI charges and to get sober recently as the first to enter the county’s “sobriety court.”
Others are expected to follow.
Robeson County District Attorney Matt Scott said the DWI Treatment Court, which held its first session on Jan. 9, seeks to get to the root of the crime it focuses on, which is dependency on drugs and alcohol.
“It’s just time that we get what we need to tackle the problems we have in this county, and this is a step in the right direction,” Scott said.
The sobriety court targets people who have been charged with DWI for a fourth time, which is a felony offense. It is funded by a $192,285 grant from the N.C. Governor’s Highway Safety Program. The grant expires Oct. 1.
The court offers offenders a treatment program through Robeson Health Care Corporation that can last 12 to 18 months. If participants complete the program, they can avoid the felony DWI charge and a stiff jail sentence. The program requires offenders to serve 120 days in jail.
Superior Court Judge Greg Bell presides over the DWI Treatment Court, which is held twice a month.
“This is a good thing for the county,” Bell said. “We’re modeling our DWI Treatment Court after the DWI Treatment Court in Brunswick County.”
The judge also presided over Brunswick County’s DWI Treatment Court.
“I bring like 10 years of experience in treatment court,” Bell said. “So, I’ve seen what it does in Brunswick County. It’s real successful, I’m hoping we can have the same success over here.”
MaryJane Richardson, a Robeson County assistant district attorney, searched through pending cases to identify high needs-high risk habitual offenders in December.
“We want everybody who qualifies to be in the program,” she said.
Richardson said participants seem to be receptive. The grant money relieves them of any costs.
“They understand they are struggling and that they need help,” she said.
If sobriety court participants don’t attend treatment or comply with court orders, they can face mini-sentences, such as a weekend in jail, she said.
The treatment team, which includes representatives of Robeson Health Care and the District Atttorney’s Office, meets with the judge one hour before each court session to review cases.
After that, the team makes recommendations to the judge, Richardson said.
Participants must hold down a job or take part in job training, which is offered by the Employment Security Commission. They also are expected to call in each day to the DWI Treatment Court coordinator. If the person does not call in, they are subjected to a drug test. Random alcohol and drug testing is part of the program.
Richardson said transportation to and from Robeson Health is provided.
Scott believes the program, given time, can “put a dent” in driving while impaired cases.
“More importantly, you’ve changed somebody’s life,” he said. “It just has a ripple effect.”
Scott said the effort was made possible by collaboration with The University of North Carolina at Pembroke, Robeson Health Care Corporation, Probation and Parole, the Robeson County Sheriff’s Office, the District Attorney’s Office, Judge Bell and Sen. Danny Britt Jr.
“I cannot say enough about our work with the agencies we have in this county,” Scott said. “Over the last year I think we, as a collective, have done a tremendous job at working for the benefit of Robeson County.”
Scott said UNCP is helping the office manage the grant and search for more funding for an adult drug treatment court, which will focus on drug abuse.
He also said the District Attorney’s Office is applying for a grant renewal that would extend funding one more year.
Robeson County ranked fifth in the state with 13 alcohol-related fatal crashes in 2017, according to the N.C. Governor’s Highway Safety Program report. Mecklenburg, Wake, Cumberland and Guilford counties were ahead of Robeson.
The Robeson County Sheriff’s Office also received $347,056, from the N.C. Governor’s Highway Safety Program to create a three-person DWI traffic task force committed to decreasing DWIs in the county.
“Our newly formed traffic enforcement division, funded by the GHSP, has been very proactive in educating the public and by providing countywide traffic enforcement,” Sheriff Burnis Wilkins said. “No one agency can do it alone and I feel the collaborative effort of all law enforcement agencies will make a difference towards the safety of our residents.”
Robeson County Assistant District Attorney MaryJane Richardson speaks Friday briefly with Superior Court Judge Greg Bell about DWI Treatment Court as Robeson County District Attorney Matt Scott watches. The treatment court will offer 25 repeat offenders the chance to get sober and avoid felony charges.