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A controversial new program hopes to help drivers facing their first DUI charge turn around their lives, but it's a move that has families of DUI victims concerned.
A "drastic" change in how suspected drunk drivers are treated in Miami-Dade County was announced Monday and might essentially give first-time offenders a free pass.
The new guidelines established by the Miami-Dade State Attorney's Office were handed out to attorneys in court that stated first-time DUI offender won't face a conviction for being drunk on the roads.
"It's a good day for my clients," said a shocked Justin Beckham, a DUI criminal defense attorney. "I came in thinking it would be a normal day and then I am handed a piece of paper that's a drastic change in the DUI policy."
But critics might say it's a bad idea to give the impression that punishment for DUI is no longer a serious first offense.
With 50 to 70 percent of all DUI offenders likely to get back behind the wheel drunk, a stringent program that includes stiff penalties and a tracking system will be key to the success of the new policy, Janet Mondstein, executive director of the Miami-Dade branch of Mothers Against Drunk Driving said.
Under the current State Attorney's policy, suspects found guilty of DUI could face jail time, have their licenses suspended for six months, have their vehicles impounded and pay heavy fines.
The new "Back on Track" program essentially gives first-time offenders who have not been involved in a crash a chance to keep the arrest off their record.
In court records, the DUI arrest would be changed to a reckless driving conviction and adjudication would be withheld.
"It probably doesn't send the right message, but if you knew how many drunk drivers fall through the cracks, you could understand what it's better than the current system," Mondstein said. "We think all cases should be prosecuted to the fullest extent. We don't want to give anybody a break."
Those who take the deal would be subject to a year in a drug and alcohol treatment program, have an ignition interlock placed on the their vehicles, DUI driving school and possibly community service, SOA spokesman Ed Griffith said.
"At the moment there are so many DUI cases where individuals walk out the back door with a smile on their face because the case was dropped because a witness didn't show up," he said. "This program makes sure there is something happening to fix a potential problem."
"People make mistakes. This program is meant to stop them from doing it a second time and give them a chance to turn their lives around."
In order to be eligible for "Back on Track," the defendant couldn't have been involved in an accident, can't have children in the car and can't have a history of reckless driving.
The new program is set to debut in two weeks although some first-time offenders were notified today that they might be eligible for "Back on Track."
"This is not perfect for MADD or the community, but we're working on it," Mondstein said. "It is better than the existing system and what's happening today. We'll see what happens."