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Rehab vs. Repeat: South Dakota DUI Court

May 15, 2014, 9:59 PM by Ben Dunsmoor

Rehab vs. Repeat: South Dakota DUI Court

Working as a cook at bars and restaurants his entire life, it was hard for Scott Larson to turn down a drink.

"You would be offered free drinks after work so that's how I got started drinking," Larson said.

Those drinks turned into a problem. A problem that had him staring down hard time in the South Dakota State Penitentiary more than six months ago.

"That's when you're looking at pen time. That's one of the scariest things to just have a few drinks and end up spending years in the pen," Larson said.

Last fall Larson was arrested in Sioux Falls for his ninth DUI. It was his sixth in 25 years which carries a sentence of ten years in prison. Instead of sitting behind bars Larson is now spending his time in a Minnehaha County courtroom every week.  He's one of eleven participants in the new Sioux Falls DUI court program.

"I was just really thankful and they said it was an 18 to 24 month program which sounded a lot better than two-and-a-half years in the penitentiary," Larson said.

Launched in November as part of South Dakota's new judicial reform, Minnehaha County's DUI court meets at the courthouse every Tuesday morning. 

"It's the best thing I do," Houwman said.

Circuit Judge Robin Houwman leads the program.

"The clients that we're focusing on in the DUI court are not the folks who get a DUI and can go through treatment and never see the court system again. We're looking for high-risk, high-needs DUI offenders," Houwman said.

Officials with the DUI court help identify non-violent chronic drunk drivers for the special program that requires regular blood alcohol tests, steady attendance at treatment and Alcoholics Anonymous meetings, and a weekly presence in court to track progress.

DUI court keeps the offenders out of prison but prison time still hangs over their head if they don't follow the rules.

Besides Sioux Falls, Pennington County, Brown County and Pierre also have DUI courts and the legislature has already approved money to expand the Sioux Falls program.

South Dakota Drug and DUI Court Map

"It's much harder for our participants to be in the DUI or drug court than it is to go to prison. It would be easy for them to go to prison and sit for three months, or three years, or six years. That would be easy," Houwman said.

"They want to keep us accountable; being here every week and then going to AA every week with the treatment and everything else that we have because we can't just sit on our butts. That would be too easy," Larson said.

The eleven participants in Minnehaha County's program alone have a combined 78 DUI convictions, but because of the program they also now have more than 900 days of sobriety combined.

"So we know just locking them up isn't the answer. Just providing a treatment program isn't the answer. What for this particular client can we do differently to hopefully make his life better; the life of his children and his extended family better?" Houwman said.

For Larson that means he is now working again as a cook at a Sioux Falls restaurant and staying sober - more than 160 days to be exact.

"Sending people to jail and prison it doesn't help anyone and it really doesn't help the person themselves," Larson said.

Larson is paying for many of the costs of being on the program because he does have a job. He's also working as a productive member of society while working toward long-term sobriety.

"Programs like this are what is needed. If they would have had this ten to 15 years ago I wouldn't be sitting here right now. I probably wouldn't have nine DUIs," Larson said.

A problem that Larson hopes will soon be in his past and won't be repeated in the future.

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