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May 18, 2017 10:15 PM

Inside DUI Court

Every year, thousands of people in KELOLAND get drunk and get behind the wheel. That is how a local grandmother ended up with six drunk driving charges.  In addition to jeopardizing themselves and other drivers, DUI offenders face huge court costs and jail time.  Yet there is a program working to hold people accountable without locking them up. 

Life was a party for Opal Lovejoy. 

"Lord Calvert.  I used to drink wine back in the day," Lovejoy said. 

All she needed was a drink. 

"It used to be fun.  I was like in my early --21, 22-- early 20s, when I was really, really bad," Lovejoy said. 

Looking back now, Lovejoy can admit she was an alcoholic.  She says her drinking got the better of her and led to her living on the streets of Denver.  A constant alcohol haze prevented her from seeing, or caring, about what was happening to her. 

"All kinds of bad things happened.  Gun pulled on me, knife pulled on me.  Rape," Lovejoy said. 

Despite these three horrific tales, Lovejoy says none of the violence fazed her.  She moved it to the back of her mind and kept on drinking.  Eventually, Lovejoy moved back to South Dakota.  The darkness in front of her eventually led to police lights behind her. 

"Started racking up the DUIs there again.  I got to the fourth and went to prison and that's what brought me to Sioux Falls," Lovejoy said. 

In total, Lovejoy says she was charged with six DUI offenses.  The last one opened her eyes.

"I didn't drive, but I went to sleep in my car with it running and that's how I got popped for a DUI," Lovejoy said. 

Fast forward to now, Lovejoy is celebrating more than four years of sobriety and credits her success to Minnehaha County's DUI court. 

"We have people who have been alcoholics for 40 years in our program," Lovejoy said. 

That program began nearly four years ago.  DUI court is designed for people who have lengthy histories of driving under the influence.  They have to have at least three DUI charges.  Instead of sending repeat DUI or alcohol-addicted offenders to jail, Judge Robin Houwman says DUI court is an alternative way to provide justice and treatment, as well as to protect the public. 

"We could send them to jail or to prison and have the community pay for that, but these types of resources directed to getting them healthy and sober is a much better way to direct those resources," Houwman said. 

63 people have participated in the program.  Similar courts in the United States seem to be working and saving taxpayers money.  According to the National Center for DWI Courts, offenders are up to 19 times less likely to get a new drunk driving offense than people sentenced in traditional court.  Nationwide, for every person enrolled in these courts, taxpayers save up to $13,000.  

Houwman says just because participants avoid jail time does not mean they are getting off easy.  They have to complete treatment, counseling and meet every week with attorneys, judges, sponsors and peers.  

"That's not really a slap on the wrist.  These people have 10 to 15 hours of programming in their first several months of the program.  That's a huge impact on their lives.  It's a huge commitment," Houwman said. 

Lovejoy says DUI court, and the treatment she received, did what her time behind bars could not do. 

Brady Mallory: Can you see, has it helped you take responsibility for getting behind the wheel, putting yourself in jeopardy and others?  Is that a meaningful lesson?
Lovejoy:  Yes, it is.  Yes, it is a meaningful lesson.  I'm so thankful and I thank God I didn't kill anybody or hurt anybody while I was drinking and driving. 

As for Lovejoy, this grandmother of six hopes the program continues to help others. 

"It's up to the person them self.  They got to want this really.  That's the only way it's going to work," Lovejoy said. 

Lovejoy's partying ways are over, and she's ready for the rest of her life to begin. 

"I'm happy.  I'm happy now," Lovejoy said. 

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