Natrona County residents charged with alcohol-related offenses will continue to have their matters heard at the alcohol court after Casper City Council unanimously moved to keep the court open at their Tuesday night work session.
The alcohol court, which is a part of the municipal court, was established in December 2012 to ensure that those convicted of driving under the influence receive consistently strict punishments, closely supervised probation and counseling services to prevent them from reoffending.
The council discussed Tuesday whether this new tactic of handling DUI cases has been effective.
Municipal Court Judge Keith Nachbar told council the alcohol court has made significant progress: Natrona County had 544 DUI arrests in 2012 and 304 DUI arrests in 2016.
Although the judge acknowledged that it’s impossible to prove that the lower DUI rate is directly related to the creation of the alcohol court, he said it was a logical conclusion to reach.
“What [else] have we done differently?” he asked.
Stating that alcohol abuse is a “big problem” in Natrona County, Councilman Charlie Powell said he favored keeping the court open.
Powell said he’s noticed more cars remain parked at bars in the early morning hours, which he think indicates people are taking driving home drunk more seriously. “The first DUI is a four fire alarm,” he added, explaining that people have usually driven drunk dozens of times before they get caught.
Councilman Chris Walsh agreed and passionately warned council that closing the alcohol court would send a message to citizens that the city is “apathetic” towards drunk driving.
Walsh, a former police chief, was among the officials who initially pushed council to create the court in 2012.
Although Councilman Dallas Laird ultimately supported keeping the court open, he said it needs to employee full-time judges.
Three part-time judges currently preside over the court, which Laird said was unprofessional.
“Part-time judges are a thing of the past,” said Laird, who is also a local attorney.
He also pointed out that many of Wyoming’s younger residents have been moving out of the state in recent years, which he said may have played a role in the falling DUI rates.
However, Laird also agreed with the rest of council that alcohol-related crime is a serious problem.
Determining whether the alcohol court saves or costs the city money is difficult, according to public memo from Pete Meyers, the city’s assistant support services director.
Closing the court might reduce staffing needs, said Meyers, but if it led to more DUIs, those cases would cost the city money to prosecute.
However, Vice Mayor Ray Pacheco said Tuesday that the issue of cost is irrelevant, because protecting citizens from being killed by a drunk driver is essential. The rest of council concurred.