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Research surveys offenders
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Cell's Eye View
Research surveys offenders locked in a DUI world
In the dark of night in late December 2009, an alleged drunken driver went off the road near East Missoula and struck four teenage girls as they walked along the sidewalk. Two were killed instantly; two were injured.
Just two days later, UM social work Associate Professor Tim Conley sat in a residential treatment center interviewing people convicted of multiple DUI offenses about how to stop others from drinking and driving. As Conley talked with treatment center residents, a program director made the rounds sharing a newspaper article about the tragedy with offenders.
“This was what motivated the offenders to be so forthcoming,” Conley says. “They don’t want to be that person. They really don’t want anybody to be that person. That’s why they were so willing to participate and offer such good advice.”
As Montana comes to terms with the damage inflicted by intoxicated drivers, state lawmakers are looking to strengthen DUI laws during the 2011 session. Legislators recently trusted Conley for guidance.
Conley is no stranger to working with drunken drivers. His 2001 doctoral dissertation was on offenders with multiple DUI convictions in Massachusetts. He also has collaborated extensively with state agencies in Montana to conduct social work research projects and provide work force training.
Conley knew just where to find the answers legislators were seeking: the offenders themselves.
“We want to know how to get them to stop committing DUI offenses. So we asked them,” he says. “That is the community-based participatory research principle — that the population has the answer to their own problem.
“The idea is that just by asking them you are empowering them, that the research itself has a change effect. That’s called catalytic validity. That was the thesis of this study — the idea that the study would help effect change.”
Conley organized the pro bono study on short notice. He worked with UM graduate student Sara Shapiro and undergraduates Kimberly Spurzem and Stacy Hardy to survey 201 Montanans convicted of multiple DUI offenses who were serving time in prison or in a Department of Corrections residential treatment program.
The offenders were more than willing to participate in the study. In fact, Conley had to limit interview participants to include only those with five or more DUI convictions. Overall, Conley’s group interview sessions included more than 80 multiple felony offenders. And they had a lot to say.
Among Conley’s findings: One in four offenders had not attended the “mandatory” drunken driving treatment program required after a person’s first three DUI convictions. Of those who did attend, most ranked it as ineffective at preventing drinking and driving.
Another significant finding: Sixty-six percent of offenders said Montana’s current laws are not effective at deterring people from committing multiple crimes.
“They said, ‘You got to us too late. In order to stop us from becoming multiple offenders, you have to hit us harder and hit us earlier.’”
The report also found that 40 percent of those with multiple DUI offenses received their first alcohol-related conviction at 20 or younger. That’s a clear sign, Conley says, that there is a link between teen drinking and adult DUI. Better prevention efforts are paramount, he says.
The final survey asked participants to describe in their own words what they think would keep Montanans from committing multiple DUI offenses. Of the 201 surveyed, 165 answered that question.
“They said treatment and counseling was the No. 1 theme,” Conley says. “Incarceration was close. Third was increasing early penalties.”
In April the Law and Justice Interim Committee of the Montana Legislature heard testimony from Conley and Shapiro, then passed several recommendations to lawmakers for changing Montana’s DUI laws.
Among the recommendations:
-- Provide support and a guaranteed funding stream for DUI courts
-- Allow judges to mandate residential treatment when sentencing for second or third drunken driving offenses.
-- Allow game wardens to issues citations to youth under the age of 21 for illegal possession of alcohol.
-- Extend court jurisdiction for misdemeanor drunken driving offenses from six months to one year.
For Conley, the recommendations were a clear indication of the study’s success.
“That’s the measure of catalytic validity: Did what the offenders said change anything that the lawmakers were writing?” Conley says. “And it did.”
In addition to using his research to help the state, Conley will use the DUI study to educate his students at UM about social work in the field. He will present the findings in his classes this fall.
“The research we do directly informs our teaching activities,” he says. “We’re able to show students, ‘Here’s research in the real world. We do it. It’s happening now. Watch the legislative session.’ This affects students’ lives.”
— By Jennifer Sauer
|(Above) UM researcher Tim Conley studies why drunken drivers offend multiple times and wind up back behind bars.