See how mental health, substance screenings can impact DWI stops in parts of Acadiana

Three Acadiana parishes are beginning a new misdemeanor DWI program Tuesday to help combat impaired driving, according to the Louisiana Highway Safety Commission.

Beginning Tuesday, judges in Acadia, Lafayette and Vermilion Parishes will have a new tool in their toolkit when dealing with DWI offenders. Misdemeanor offenders in the three parishes will be screened for substances and mental health disorders as part of a pilot program launched by the LHSC.

”Screening impaired drivers for the presence of a substance use or mental health disorder is a proven impaired driving countermeasure that is supported by science and recommended by numerous national traffic safety experts,” said Lisa Freeman, LHSC executive director. “Yet, it is an area in which Louisiana is sorely lacking, both in its statutes and in its criminal justice process.”

Judges for city courts in Abbeville, Crowley, Kaplan, Lafayette and Rayne, in addition to the 15th Judicial District Court, are participating in the project.

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The program is funded through a grant from the Governors Highway Safety Association and the Foundation for Advancing Alcohol Responsibility. Louisiana is one of four states to receive the grant.

As a condition for probation for a first- or second-offense DWI conviction, judges will have offenders use the Computerized Assessment and Referral System screening tool. The tool is specifically designed for screening impaired drivers.

Louisiana's impaired driving laws require a substance abuse disorder screening after a third or subsequent DWI conviction.

According to LHSC, 40% of vehicle deaths in Louisiana were alcohol related. The CARS tool will be used before the offender is sentenced to inform the judge of the offender's treatment needs. As a result, judges will be able to make more individualized sentencing decisions, which could reduce recidivism.

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Former Lafayette Judge Jules Edwards was a driving force behind the program, the LHSC said in a news release. Edwards is the American Bar Association's judicial outreach liaison for Louisiana.

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“We know that, in most cases, by the time offenders receive their third DWI conviction, they have driven impaired on numerous occasions," Edwards said. "If there is an underlying cause for this dangerous behavior, we need to identify it as soon as possible to both get the offender the help that he needs and improve public safety."

This article originally appeared on Lafayette Daily Advertiser: Acadia, Lafayette and Vermilion parishes begin new DWI pilot program