Judges Say DWI Court Showing Promise

Judge Wendy Sharum, a former public defender, presides in Fort Smith District Court
Judge Wendy Sharum, a former public defender, presides in Fort Smith District Court

Fort Smith, nestled at the confluence of the Arkansas and Poteau Rivers, is the third-largest city in Arkansas and has a somewhat diverse population. German prisoners of war were brought there in the 1940s to be housed in nearby Fort Chaffee, which became a destination for refugees and displaced persons, and many of those families have remained.

The city’s population can double during the day, because its amenities, manufacturing facilities and stores are a draw for rural Oklahomans.

In recent years, plant closures have left many unemployed. The area’s poverty rate trends high, the graduation rate low.

The Fort Smith District Court stays busy handling the gamut of misdemeanor cases – theft, domestic battery and assaults, and traffic offenses such as speeding and driving without a license or liability insurance.

In March 2020, two new judges were elected – Amy Grimes and Wendy Sharum – former coworkers and deputy public defenders. During the lull before taking the bench in January 2021, they visited to observe their new courtrooms. A DWI Court had just been established by the judge whom Sharum would replace – newly sanctioned by the state and ready to enroll its first participants.

Sharum and Grimes watched a man approach the podium before the soon-departing judge. In his late thirties, this man faced a charge of DWI, which carries a mandatory jail sentence, typically of two weeks but up to a year. A family man who held a steady job, the man began to weep. He had much to lose.

“I’m ready. I need help. I want to put my family back together,” Sharum remembers the man begging the judge.

“Judge Grimes and I were both really moved,” Sharum remembers. The man would become one of the first to be admitted into the program.

He would willingly surrender his pride, control and much of his privacy in the hope of gaining healing and a measure of forgiveness. He would consent to warrantless searches of his home and vehicle for the 12- to 18-month duration. An app on his mobile phone would signal his need to blow into a breathalyzer to test for traces of alcohol.

Seven days a week at 8 a.m., he would call to ask if he needed to immediately appear for a drug test. Twice per month he would appear in court. He would regularly visit a probation officer, participate in a support group and submit to intensive substance abuse treatment.

For as much as he would relinquish, the rewards would be greater. He would still be convicted of the DWI, though some of his fines and fees would be reduced. But he would gain the care and oversight of a team of treatment specialists – lawyers and educators, substance abuse professionals and therapists – who would direct, discipline and encourage him until his habits and determination held greater sway than his disease.

The judge would rely on this team to gauge the man’s compliance and measure his progress. She would dispense sanctions and incentives to usher him through the program’s five phases.

Gradually, his gray pallor would give way to a healthy complexion. A sense of order would influence his daily routines. In court, he would tremble from deference rather than a frantic nervous system. He would persevere to graduation, pursuing what most participants say is their greatest motivation: staying out of jail.

Initially, most defendants don’t consciously desire to change and won’t admit they need help.

“We’re okay if they say, ‘I just want to do this to avoid the jail time,’ because we always, always see a turnaround,” Sharum says. “I haven’t had a graduate who’s come through yet that hasn’t had their life changed. It begins with them wanting to get out of jail time, but once they buy into the program, then it’s about protecting their sobriety date. They’re seeing that their life is changing and they’re putting relationships back in place. They’re doing better in their jobs, they’re feeling better physically. And so they start to buy in and it becomes about something other than that.”

I HAVEN’T HAD A GRADUATE WHO’S COME THROUGH YET THAT HASN’T HAD THEIR LIFE CHANGED. IT BEGINS WITH THEM WANTING TO GET OUT OF JAIL TIME, BUT ONCE THEY BUY INTO THE PROGRAM, THEN IT’S ABOUT PROTECTING THEIR SOBRIETY DATE.
WENDY SHARUM, FORT SMITH DISTRICT COURT JUDGE

Witnessing transformations is the best part of her job, Sharum says. The glimmers of pride when a defendant announces even a meager accumulation of sober days; the inevitable slip-ups and course corrections; the happiness of moving on to a new phase; the relief of graduation with its cookies and punch, heartfelt goodbyes from the treatment team; and the symbolic ritual of tearing up a copy of the booking photo. It is unquestionably worth the many extra hours Sharum devotes and the close oversight that is essential.

“I spend a lot of time praying about these people, worrying about these people,” Sharum says of her court, which she named G.R.I.T. to highlight the concept of goals, resilience, initiative and tenacity. “It’s different from my regular docket, because you see them on this journey and you want them to get to the graduation. I see how they’ve invested in their sobriety. They’re trying to better their lives.

“So I spend a lot of time. I check in with the probation officer and the treatment team. We email constantly about the status of people, because we want to be there if they mess up. We want to take care of it quickly so that they can still make it through the program.”

Often Judge Sharum embraces a graduate to say, “It’s been my pleasure to see you get where you are right now.”

“We can always fill up the jails,” Sharum says. “There are people who belong in jail. But I was a deputy public defender for 26 years. I did juvenile court for 26 years. I saw that a lot of the problems that people have are the result of trauma and things that happened in their families; it’s a cycle. We see it over and over again. I was seeing second and third generations by the time I left.

“This is important work. It is effective. If we can make better citizens of these people and create better families, there’s just no question about it for me.”

Judge Amy Grimes, formerly a public
defender who once served as Legal Counsel for Clemency and Correction, now presides in Fort Smith District Court.
Judge Amy Grimes, formerly a public defender who once served as Legal Counsel for Clemency and Correction, now presides in Fort Smith District Court.

ARISING

Judge Sharum’s counterpart, Amy Grimes, brings a unique perspective to her judgeship. After working in Sebastian County as a deputy public defender, she served as former Governor Mike Beebe’s Legal Counsel for Clemency and Corrections.

There Grimes witnessed the posterior of Arkansas’ criminal justice system – the intensity and expense of incarceration, the challenge of assessing inmates’ requests for clemency, and how decisions on the local level impact the state broadly.

“When I left and went to Little Rock to work, I came to realize that all cogs and spokes need to work together, because what I might have done as a public defender, or what the prosecutor does in Sebastian County, affects how we have bed space in the Department of Corrections or services provided by Community Correction. It affects who gets paroled; it has many effects. And so I began to think there’s got to be a different way to do this, because we have a limited number of beds and we have people who, due to the violence or severity of their crimes, need to be in those beds.”

As a judge, Grimes is particularly attuned to what is fundamentally lacking for the defendants in her court.

Many have never experienced having a mentor. They lack basic life skills – such as being on time or managing a checking account. They never aspired to please their parents, who themselves often had drug addictions and legal struggles and saw poverty as their lot in life.

“Most of them don’t understand how to do these things, because their parents didn’t understand them; many come from a long line of generational problems,” she says. “And if we can change things at the district court level, many of these folks actually do change – they go on to be productive citizens and will not again commit a crime.”

Beginning in the spring of 2023, Judge Grimes’ docket will be a sanctioned specialty court called R.I.S.E. Court, a low-risk, low-need court for defendants who face a broader spectrum of charges. (Final approval of the program is pending.) Many use drugs and alcohol. Many lack a formal education and are earning low wages. She utilizes the same treatment team members as Sharum, yet the program is pre-adjudication. She can dismiss charges for those who successfully complete the program, so they don’t have, or don’t expand, a criminal record.

Defendants often balk at the idea of committing six months to her program, even though a criminal conviction could affect their employability or ability to rent an apartment.

“A lot of times a defendant seems to think, ‘What difference does it make? I can’t get a good job anyway, because I don’t have a GED or any specialized training. Maybe I should just pay this fine and cost and take the conviction.’ But there could also be restitution involved and community service. And then they begin to realize, ‘Hey, wait a minute, I should probably take advantage of some help, because this is going to have some long-term ramifications.’”

The lack of hope and opportunity to better themselves is widespread, leading to many of the same people cycling through the court system over and over again.

“Many times, nobody’s ever told them there is a different path. A lot of folks will later tell me, ‘I didn’t know that you all had all these things to offer me,’” Grimes says. “So many don’t need a hand out, they need a hand up, to get them on the right path. I am a big believer in a hand up, not a hand out.

MANY TIMES, NOBODY’S EVER TOLD THEM THERE IS A DIFFERENT PATH. A LOT OF FOLKS WILL LATER TELL ME, ‘I DIDN’T KNOW THAT YOU ALL HAD ALL THESE THINGS TO OFFER ME.’
AMY GRIMES, FORT SMITH DISTRICT COURT JUDGE

“We’ve had several folks that have done really well. For instance, we had a particular young man about which I know that the court staff thought, ‘Oh, this poor guy’s not going to make it.’ But he did; he went on to earn an OSHA certificate so he could get a raise at work. And he encouraged his wife to go to adult ed, and she’s now going to get further education. So he’s a success story. And he’ll tell you, ‘I didn’t realize that my life could change, that I could do something different from the path I was on.’”

Judge Grimes also relies on sanctions and incentives to guide people through her program. Incentives can be simple, like a Plinko game with a small prize such as a gift card or personal hygiene product. She was amazed to realize how excited people were to receive a small gift.

But the greatest incentive is always the desire for approval from the team, and in particular from the judge.

“Wanting my approval or Judge Sharum’s approval, they will work harder. They just want our approval. And sometimes in court sessions, I’ll have one of my bailiffs say, ‘Congratulations, man, you’re doing well.’ And those folks walk out of here like they’ve been touched, you know? Those interactions, and knowing that we’re trying to stop that cycle so that we don’t see them headed to circuit court, and we don’t later see their children in juvenile court, these are the things that make it worthwhile. We are lucky here, to be blessed with a prosecuting attorney, chief of police and sheriff who are supportive of alternative courts.”

While she was working for Gov. Beebe, Grimes recalls him saying, “‘Are we afraid of these folks or are we mad at them?’ The folks we’re mad at don’t always need to be in the county jail or the penitentiary. If they have a drug problem, or they’re not disciplined enough to remember to make their payments or show up in court on the date they’re supposed to, those are the folks we’re mad at. The folks we’re afraid of, we need a jail or ADC bed for.

“You do devote extra time, but if you can’t do a little mercy along with justice while you’re here, then it’s not worth being here. They don’t all have to be sentenced. They don’t all have to pay a hefty fine and cost; some of them just deserve a hand up and a little mercy. There are people who deserve that.”

Smart Justice is a magazine, podcast, and continuing news coverage from the nonprofit Restore Hope and covers the pursuit of better outcomes on justice system-related issues, such as child welfare, incarceration, and juvenile justice. Our coverage is solutions-oriented, focusing on the innovative ways in which communities are solving issues and the lessons that have been learned as a result of successes and challenges. 

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