CONYERS - In the course of any given year, there are plenty of graduation ceremonies in Rockdale County, ranging from preschool to high school. But a first-of-its kind commencement commemoration is scheduled for Wednesday in Judge Nancy Bills' State Court courtroom.
On that day, the first graduates of the county's DUI Court Supervised Treatment Program will receive their hard-earned diplomas with a determination to remain sober and keep local streets safe.
Recognizing that alcoholism is a treatable behavior, DUI Court is a different approach to limiting recidivism. The 18- to 24-month program - comprised of four different phases - is voluntary, and Bills said that about 30 offenders (all of whom have received multiple DUIs) have accepted the opportunity to rid themselves of their addictions.
"It's an accountability court," said Bills, who established DUI Court in Rockdale County in May 2007 and added that five people would receive their diplomas at graduation.
"We take a team, rather than an adversarial, approach in that the court gets to know the people in the program and works closely with them to find success," she said. "Rockdale County takes a hard line with first-time (DUI) offenders and we found that with repeat offenders, our plan wasn't working - many of the people were just as sick when they got out of jail as they were when they went in. We were not creating any more safety."
The DUI Court concept was established in 2001 by Kent Lawrence, chief judge of Clarke County State Court in Athens. Bills said that Lawrence has been supportive of similar programs in other Georgia counties and is recognized throughout the country for starting the program.
"Kent has been so innovative," said Bills. "He's definitely the leader when it comes to DUI Court."
"I do not run a hug-a-drunk court," Lawrence said Wednesday. "It's an accountability court, and we have great expectations from our participants. They can't just talk the talk - they must walk the walk. I've seen more lives transformed from addiction to sobriety than I ever dreamed.
"Lawrence said when DUI Court began in Athens, there were just a handful of similar programs across the country. Now there are some 17 DUI Court programs in 14 Georgia counties and more than 530 similar courts in the United States.
"It's been incredible, far better than we ever envisioned," he said. "Traditional sentences for high-risk DUI offenders have proven to have little impact on breaking the repetitive cycle on impaired driving. I'm embarrassed it took me 12 years on the bench before I realized that. It doesn't work for that group of people.
"Funded by the Governor's Office of Highway Safety and the Georgia Administrative Office of Courts, the no-tolerance DUI Court is comprehensive and intensive, and Bills said, "If somebody's in it for the wrong reason, it will be very obvious early."
Each of the four phases of the program has objective requirements participants have to attain in exchange for reduced jail time and the opportunity to get sober. Besides the statutory requirements, offenders must attend treatment sessions at least twice a week, report to their probation officer at least once a week and come to DUI Court every two weeks to report on their progress.
In addition, participants are subject to random drug and alcohol screens and the court has at its disposal two Rockdale County Sheriff's deputies who serve as surveillance officers who can go to offenders' homes to "check their refrigerators, check their trash cans and administer drug screens" at any time.
"It's a volunteer program, but once they volunteer, they do what we tell them," said Bills, who added that at least one offender has already been terminated from the program. "We understand that relapses can happen and there are measures in place to deal with that.
"Because this will be Rockdale County's first DUI Court graduation, there are no statistics on the local effectiveness of the program, but Lawrence said there's been significant change in his community.
"Thus far this year, we've had 14 (road) fatalities in Clarke County," he said. "And only two of those were alcohol-related. Now two is too many, but in the past, we'd have anywhere from four to eight alcohol-related fatalities before we started the program."
Bills said she's not sure when Rockdale County's second DUI Court graduation ceremony will be held, although it could be as soon as this fall.
"This has been a very rewarding and at times emotionally draining experience," she said. "But with graduation, it will be well worth all the hours that go into it."
The graduation ceremony is set for 5 p.m. Wednesday in the State Court courtroom (Room 309) in the Rockdale County Courthouse. For more information on Rockdale County DUI Court, call 770-278-7720.