Harris County's Sober Court Tackles Not Just DWI But Alcoholism

Judge Robin Brown with graduate Dominique Viramontes
Many celebrations and parties mark the holiday season every year. Unfortunately, that also means more people get behind the wheel drunk. Harris County's Sober Court aims to curb the number of drunk driving accidents, and help those with alcohol addiction.

Harris County’s Sober Court is not your everyday court.

“Hey guys, I’m James. I’m an alcoholic.”

“Hey, James.”

If that sounds like the beginning of an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting to you, you’re not entirely wrong. It’s actually a graduation ceremony for those who’ve successfully completed the two-year Sober Court program.

But the goal of the Sober Court — that stands for “Saving Ourselves by Education and Recovery” — is to get DWI offenders not just off the streets but off alcohol altogether.

Diane Bull is one of the judges supervising the court, which she does on her own time. She says the concept is working pretty well.

“If you compare our probationers to those who just went to jail or those who just had a regular probation, our people in our program are 60 percent less likely than those other people to reoffend.”

One major difference to programs like AA is that the Sober Court is not exactly voluntary. Often, offenders get to choose between jail and the Sober Court. Others don’t even get that choice.

“A lot of them are very resentful and they’re in denial. That’s part of the disease of addiction. But once they get involved in the program, as you heard from our graduates, the transformation can be really powerful. Sometimes we say, it’s not so much leading the horse to water and making him drink but holding his head down long enough to make him take a gulp.”

That description fits Dominique Viramontes pretty well. The 23-year-old is one of the graduates honored this week and Judge Robin Brown introduces her this way:

“She was confused, she was angry, she was a stinky little brat, let me tell you. Maturity about right here. But she transformed.”

Two years ago, Viramontes had just gotten her second DWI within a year and a judge recommended she take part in the Sober Court program.

“That’s when I came and I sat down with Latasha Baylor, my probation officer, and she explained to me the ins and outs of the program and, you know, I told her, ‘All I see is dollar signs coming out of your mouth.’ I didn’t want to spend $13,000 anymore, you know, for DWI. And she told me, you know, we’re not here to put you in jail because you’re not paying for court costs or anything like that. She said, we’re here to help you.”

She says it was tough and overwhelming in the beginning. She had to go to outpatient treatment several times a week, see her probation officer once a week and go to AA meetings every day. Today she’s sober and proud to have completed the Sober Court.

“It feels great. At the same time, it’s scary, because I’m not going to have my judge and my probation officer to fall back on if I ever need anything, so it’s a little intimidating.”

But not to worry. Judge Robin Brown overhears the interview and calls “We’re not going anywhere!” 

Bio photo of Florian Martin

Florian Martin

Reporter/NewsLab Coordinator

Florian Martin is the KUHF NewsLab Coordinator. While guiding and overseeing interns, he works on his own stories and is always on call to cover breaking news and other media events...