For people dealing with substance use issues, the holidays can be the hardest time to stay sober. That’s a concern that’s potentially deadlier for people who’ve already been convicted of impaired driving.
Aware of the potential pitfalls that come at the end of each year, Athens Municipal Judge Todd Grace, and his staff who manage operating-a-vehicle-while-impaired (OVI) cases, adjust accordingly to participants who are more vulnerable to the temptations of a relapse.
“In court, I try to have something to connect with the defendants on what they’re facing, especially if we have concerns, and make sure that they are reminded about the resources available to them to help them through any difficulties they might be facing,” Judge Grace said.
Those means of support include increased accessibility to treatment and counseling, and connection to other social services. It’s part of a public service component that drew Judge Grace to the bench as juvenile magistrate in 2003, acting judge in 2009, and full-time judge since 2015.
Throughout all his years hearing cases, he’s often seen how family and financial stresses can weigh on someone and oftentimes the coping behavior is to use. In a 2019 report by the Ohio Development Service Agency, Athens County had the highest poverty rate at more than 30%.
“There are instability issues in their lives that many people are facing. It can be employment, it can be a relationship, it can be any number of issues that they’re addressing,” Judge Grace said.
Since 1981, December has been recognized as National Drunk and Drugged Driving Prevention Month, which was recently renamed as National Impaired Driving Prevention Month. The National Association of Drug Court Professionals describes this month as “one of the deadliest and most dangerous times on America’s roadways due to an increase in impaired driving.”
To get a clearer sense of how many people are potentially at risk, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) reported that 37,473 people died in motor vehicle crashes in 2017. Of the drivers killed, 45% who were tested for drugs, tested positive.
In the season of giving, there’s no greater reward for the court with its at-risk defendants than the gift of life. Whether it takes one hearing or several months, it’s a present that’s always worth the wait.
“We love the click,” Judge Grace said. “We certainly love it when somebody who’s been resistant to the program, or has not been able to fully integrate into the program, finally gets to the point where they’re ready.”