HOLLIDAYSBURG - Montgomery County Judge Cheryl Austin is a Navy veteran, a former assistant district attorney and is in her third year on the bench.
"I'm always looking for a challenge," she said last week when she led a group into the Blair County Courthouse and sat with Judge Daniel J. Milliron as he presided over the local DUI Court.
She called the experience "enlightening" and said she could understand how the court handling driving under the influence cases is "rewarding" for both the judge and the participants.
Mirror photo by J.D. Cavrich
Judges Cheryl Austin and Daniel J. Milliron discuss DUI courts on Jan. 21. Austin said the local DUI court system is a great model for what she would like to see in Montgomery County.
For her, it was an opportunity to learn about Blair's handling of repeat drunken driving offenders who, as Milliron said, have a "problem" with alcohol or drugs.
Austin's latest challenge, she said, is to find a way to expedite the more than 2,500 DUIs that come through the Montgomery County Court of Common Pleas annually.
The DUIs comprise about 25 percent of Montgomery County's criminal caseload, and, as Blair once experienced, the county's judges are concerned about drivers who get arrested for additional DUIs while awaiting for the disposition of their first offense.
Those drivers, as Blair found out just a few years ago, are not only a hazard on the roads, but the results can sometimes be fatal.
Milliron and Blair County President Judge Jolene G. Kopriva decided to focus on the problem by separating the cases of those arrested for DUI from the rest of the criminal caseload and to speed up the disposition of the cases, offering a variety of alternatives to jail, like the DUI Court or the Intermediate Punishment Program.
Montgomery County is following the same path. As of Jan. 1, Austin is receiving all of the county's DUI cases, and her task is to improve the system.
It was suggested Austin visit with Milliron because over the past nine years, he and Kopriva have put together one of the most successful DUI programs in the state, according to P. Karen Blackburn, the specialty court administrator for the Pennsylvania Supreme Court.
It used to take 16 months or more for a DUI case to move through the Blair court system. That time has dropped to three or four months, Millliron said.
His DUI Court has become popular because it focuses on the most serious cases in which the accused have been arrested three or four times with high rates of alcohol, and, in more recent years, drugs.
These defendants in the normal system face a year in a State Correctional Institution. The DUI Court is their last stop before going "upstate," as it's called.
All of those in Milliron's court do some jail time but much less time than would be the norm, and after jail, they wear a Secure Continuous Remote Alcohol Monitoring (SCRAM) device that reports their location and alcohol content.
They also receive inpatient and outpatient treatment, from agencies like Pyramid Healthcare in the Altoona area.
The treatment program depends on the needs of the defendant as determined by a treatment team.
Art Heinz, a spokesman for the Pennsylvania Supreme Court, last year wrote an article in the newsletter of the Administrative Office of the Pennsylvania Courts discussing the Blair DUI Court.
"The wide-sweeping changes" in the way Blair handles DUIs has cut the average time between a DUI arrest and a plea from more than 16 months in 2006 to just three months in 2012, Heinz reported.
The number of those who have gone through the Milliron court is approaching 200. The participants go through three phases, each six months in length, and they must earn their way to the next phase.
In the first two phases, the individuals must appear before Milliron for a review every two weeks. When they graduate to Phase III, they must appear before him once a month.
Blackburn explained this past week that most DUI offenders have jobs, so it makes sense to treat them in the community and to keep them out of jail.
Putting them into a state correctional facility or the county prison is expensive, and a trip behind bars for a length of time can mean a loss of job and even a loss of family, which is exactly what Milliron does not want to see.
"I'm trying to change behavior," Milliron said is his goal in an interview
That's the tough part - to convince an alcohol or drug abuser to "stay clean" and to get them to realize the responsibility they have to themselves and to others - he explained.
"The responsibility of the DUI Court is not to look good or create statistics. The purpose is to make the roads safe and save lives," Milliron said.
A whirlwind of a court
As Austin and Milliron took the bench in the county's largest courtroom last week, it was cold and snowy outside, but inside the action was fast and intense. In a matter of less than an hour, Milliron called 24 participants before the bench, four panels of five and one panel of four persons.
Some of the participants had done well the past couple of weeks and were given gift cards.
Two men had done so well, they asked outright, "When do I go to Phase III?"
Others had experienced relapse, which is part of trying to change behavior, Milliron explained.
The holidays were a problem. It is a festive time - a time for some to celebrate in a way unacceptable in DUI Court.
A tall, middle-aged man with gray hair was called forward by the judge. He was in an orange prison suit because he had relapsed. He tested "hot" for cocaine and alcohol, the judge was told.
The judge used the case to emphasize a couple of points. The participant had not admitted that he relapsed, and Milliron said to him, "Truthfulness, accountability are the keys to the program."
He was in orange, the judge said, because he didn't admit to what he did.
The man fessed up, stating, "The cocaine, I take responsibility for."
The alcohol in his system, he believed, did not come from drinking but from cough medicine.
As a sanction, Milliron delayed his graduation to Phase III, and he concluded, "You've got to quit hanging around the wrong people."
Then came a man wearing a sweatshirt that said, "Phillies."
He was a graduate of the DUI court who had relapsed. He was sent back to prison for two days and will now spend another 90 days in the program. He'll be wearing a SCRAM device.
He replied to the judge: "I deserve it. I'd rather learn now than end up where I was."
"The number of success stories is staggering," Milliron said when interviewed.
When someone graduates from the program, that person addresses others going through the process. Just two weeks ago, a woman told the other participants that entering the DUI program "was the most significant decision I ever made."
A male graduate said the program turned his life around. Milliron said a third graduate "looked like a different person."
That spirit of optimism was seen in others who stood before Milliron last week. A woman said she was beginning to think about graduate school. Another woman had done so well that Milliron said he would meet with her, prepare a resume with her and begin the process of helping her get her a job.
For a young man named Brad, the day was not a good one. Milliron washed him out of the DUI program and sentenced him to 130 days in the county prison because, in the past 21 months, he relapsed five times despite outpatient treatment through Pyramid and inpatient treatment at a treatment facility in Eagleville, Centre County.
According to the Blair County Parole and Probation Office, he "exhausted all resources available to him from the DUI Court program."
Milliron said the 26-year-old complained he only had one beer, but as the judge concluded, in his court, "One beer is a huge deal."
Despite the inmate's failure to get through the DUI program, the judge insisted that he will stay in jail until he completes an in-prison drug and alcohol program.
Montgomery County Assistant District Attorney Bradford Richman, a former Philadelphia prosecutor, said four attorneys in his county are assigned to the DUI cases, and he said the new way to handle cases is just beginning.
"Blair County is certainly a model," he said.
What type of program will be forged in Montgomery County remains to be seen.
He said of the his view in Blair County, "It [the DUI Court] seems to be an excellent program driven by judges and other [very dedicated] people."
The next step will be to determine what parts may be workable in his county, which has a population of nearly 800,000 and a 23-judge court system, much larger than Blair's five-judge system.
Judge Austin said DUIs are a "major issue" in Montgomery County, and her first step will be to expedite cases. In the initial stages, her DUI Court will not focus on treatment.
Milliron's court receives grants from PennDOT, the Pennsylvania Commission on Crime and Delinquency and some federal funds, which help provide the treatment.
Right now, Austin said, "I see it [DUIs] as a safety issue."
Milliron and Austin agreed that a key to Blair's success has been the experience of the parole and probation officers and the employees of the Blair County Drug and Alcohol Program, a nonprofit agency that monitors the participants daily.
Jennifer Ruffley, of the parole and probation department, has been with Blair's program for eight years, and she simply said, "It works."
Yes, she said, there are relapses.
"They are only human," she said of the participants.
Milliron, who has been a judge for 11 years, including nine as an elected judge, said his effort to have participants gain insight into themselves - "What motives behavior ... The reason we do it [drink]," - takes a big part of his time as a judge.
His program has a 3 percent recidivism rate or rearrest for DUI.
He said, "Besides the people, it [the DUI Court] may be the only thing I miss when I'm gone."
Mirror Staff Writer Phil Ray is at 946-7468.