Classes swell with DUI arrests

JACKSON — Mississippi’s driver education program for first-time DUI offenders is growing.

DUI arrests have leaped in the past five years — from 22,511 in 2005 to 32,099 last year, creating the need for more court-mandated courses.

“We’ve just had a lot of growth in the number of (DUI) convictions across the state,” said Bill Henderson, operations coordinator for the Mississippi Alcohol Safety Education Program.

The MASEP budget, which is funded through participant fees and grants, was nearly $500,000 more than expected for the fiscal year that ends Thursday. The increases could continue as the program moves into the new budget year.

Much of the budget growth has been because more people are required to take the course. MASEP has had to add more school locations, Henderson said.

The total budget for the program, which is required for all first-time offenders convicted of driving under the influence of alcohol or another substance, has grown to nearly $2 million.

“We feel like it does make a difference,” Henderson said of the program’s effect on DUI offenders. “Hopefully, it does prevent them from doing it again.”

Participants meet once a week for four weeks. Each class is typically about three hours long.

It costs participants $150, on top of other fines related to their DUI convictions.

The classes use videos, group exercises and homework assignments to encourage DUI offenders to examine their life choices and think about whether alcohol or drugs are having negative effects on their lives.

Most of the instructors are in mental health fields or have some background in dealing with people with substance abuse problems. Each class also has an assistant instructor, usually a law enforcement officer.

At the end of the final class, attendees receive certificates that allow them to have their licenses reinstated.

“It’s a good program,” said Hirrie Luckett, who works with victims of drunken drivers through Mothers Against Drunk Driving.

Luckett said he thinks MASEP has been effective in helping prevent repeat offenses.

Research also has shown the program to be successful, Henderson said. “Those who attend do not repeat at the same rate as those who did not take the class,” he said.

Some locations of the new classes include DUI hot spots, such as Oxford and Hattiesburg.

Organizers say they expect the program to continue to grow as state troopers focus on impaired drivers.

The Mississippi Highway Patrol has secured federal funding to help pay overtime and keep officers on the roads.

DUIs had fallen by nearly 5,000 arrests in 2005 — from 26,958 in 2004.

Henderson attributed much of the drop to Hurricane Katrina, which took attention and manpower away from DUI enforcement when the hurricane devastated the Gulf Coast in August 2005.

“We are just now getting back to where we were before — and even higher,” he said.

Henderson said more officers are being trained to detect potentially impaired drivers.

Mississippi also has three new state-of-the-art DUI-enforcement trucks that can be used to book drunken drivers and hold them until they can be transported to a local jail. The trucks were purchased with federal grant dollars, said MHP spokesman Sgt. James Walker.

“Local agencies can use them when they set up roadblocks,” Walker said.

Elizabeth Crisp/The Clarion-Ledger