In 2020, there were 739 fatal crashes in Louisiana, with 38.8% involving alcohol use by one or both drivers. State traffic safety agencies and advocates have worked diligently to implement proven countermeasures such as supporting the utilization of Drug Recognition Experts and expanding the use of warranted blood draws in impaired driving cases. However, one area that remains lacking is the screening of Driving While Intoxicated (DWI) crimes to ascertain the presence of substance use disorders or mental health issues.
In 2021, the Louisiana Highway Safety Commission (LHSC) was awarded grant funding from Responsibility.org and GHSA to offer municipal and state judges the Computerized Assessment Referral System (CARS) screening and assessment tool. CARS is an easy-to-use computer-guided interview that includes comprehensive psycho-social and mental health assessment instruments. When properly administered, the courts can use the results to make informed sentencing and treatment decisions for individuals convicted of first and second offense DWIs.
Implementation of CARS Training
LHSC trained 15 judges representing six court systems in three Louisiana parishes to use the CARS screening and assessment tool. The project hit a significant speed bump after the first month of CARS implementation. As defense attorneys learned of the project, they began pressuring judges to withdraw their support, stating that they were concerned that the results would be used in a punitive manner against their clients. Upon grant completion, only four (27%) of the 15 judges regularly ordered a CARS screening as a condition of probation for misdemeanor DWI offenders.
Although only four judges remained through the end of the project, they continue to order screenings as a condition of probation. By the end of the project, a total of 32 defendants were screened, with 16 positive results. Those who screened positive received referral for treatment plans, which were completed during the grant cycle.
LHSC did not anticipate the influence that the defense attorneys’ objections would have on the participating judges. They recommend providing training or informational sessions for attorneys and other courtroom professionals to explain how CARS works, why it is important for ensuring that offenders receive the treatment they need to reduce the likelihood of recidivating and assuring them that it would help, not hurt, defendants.