Retiring ‘Sobriety Court’ judge transformed how drunk drivers pay
Much has changed for northern Michigan drunk drivers since the 1990s, because the 86th District Court -- covering Antrim, Grand Traverse and Leelanau counties -- was among the first in Michigan to establish a Sobriety Court, a “problem-solving court” that lets defendants spend less time in jail in exchange for more intrusive supervision of their lives.
Judge Michael Haley, who took office in 1996, started Sobriety Court in Traverse City in 2001.
This January, he will retire. The Express sat down with Haley to talk drunk driving, retirement, and where he expects “problem-solving courts” to go in the future.
Northern Express: How different is the experience for drunk drivers in court today compared to what happened in the 1990s?
Michael Haley: It’s upside down. It’s a hundred and eighty degrees. When I started, the usual scenario for drunk driving cases was, first time, we had kind of a set pattern of what the sentence was going to be. Usually no jail. Six months of probation or something like that. And they get a little alcohol education class, so called, and then they’re gone. The second time was treated slightly differently but not much. Jail time was 15 to 45 days, probably with a community corrections early release, a little longer probation, and while the person was on probation, if there was a violation, it was almost always for a positive breath test or a probation officer saw somebody in a bar, the person would be dragged in, the probation terminated, and a whole bunch of jail time. That was our response to repeat offense drunk driving. It always seemed pointless to me.
Express: Because the person was only going to get out of jail and go drink.
Haley: Yeah. You’re not going to cure them by doing that. Intellectually, I knew that I wasn’t being really effective. But then when I would see, even in the first couple of years I was here, the same people coming back within a year or two, I really realized how ineffective I was as a judge and how pointless the whole exercise was. I really thought about going back to practicing law.
Express: But you established ‘Sobriety Court’ instead.
Haley: Fast forward — I went to this conference in 2000, 2001, and when I saw this thing, when I saw the model, it was just transformative. I saw it and I don’t know how to compare it to anything. I saw it and my eyes were just totally opened. I could see immediately that this was a program that would have to work, and even if it didn’t work, it would be so much better than the present system.
Express: What happens to drunk drivers who come through the system today?
Haley: How is it different now? Things are totally different now, because the individual that we see at arraignment, who is a repeat offense drunk driver, those people are treated totally differently. They are first of all given rigorous bond conditions, right off the bat. Without knowing it, they’re already starting, with the testing twice a day and weekly random urines and no bars and casinos and we start them with that right away. We get them a substance abuse assessment the day they come in for arraignment, and they might not be thinking about treatment or stopping alcohol use or whatever other drugs they’ve got going, they may be in what the psychologists call ‘the precontemplative stage.’ Somebody told them they should stop drinking, but they’re really not thinking about it too much. So we deal with them where they’re at. At arraignment, we provide to them lots of material for them to be thinking about whether they ought to be making changes. The bottom line is that we’re looking at a repeat offender at arraignment as somebody who might want to make a change, rather than, how much time am I going to give this guy?
Express: We hear complaints about how onerous the process is. Some say they get buried in the costs — the twice-daily breath tests, the car interlock system, court costs and fines. Some feel like the system is set up for them to fail.