On the morning of Feb. 25, 2005, Sam Burke awoke in a holding cell. After a long night of drinking at a bar in Towson, Burke had been pulled over for speeding on Joppa Road, failed his sobriety test, refused to take a breathalyzer and was arrested for drinking while impaired by alcohol.
“I wasn’t that drunk,” he said. “I had just gotten Taco Bell, and I was speeding home to eat it.”
Burke blamed the burritos, but he was the one facing hundreds of dollars in fines and the prospect of living without a drivers license for the next 45 days. So the 23-year-old Perry Hall resident called a lawyer, who advised him to get an alcohol assessment at a DWI treatment center and register for alcohol education classes in the hope it would make him look better in court.
Burke’s decision put him in the company of more than 8,000 drivers assessed at alcohol treatment centers each year in Maryland.
But while the assessment is a key step in determining the need for alcohol treatment, results vary widely across the state depending on the county, the individual center or the income level of the offender, according to a report by the Center for Substance Abuse Research at the University of Maryland.
Burke, for example, was assessed at Chesapeake Counseling Services in Baltimore County, which characterized him as a “social” drinker. But because he had refused to submit to a breathalyzer test, he was enrolled in the 26-hour course for “problem” drinkers.
Columbia resident David Lee, like Burke, refused to take a breathalyzer on the night of his DWI arrest in Howard County in April, and like Burke was assessed as a “social” drinker. But Lee was required only to enroll in the 12-hour alcohol education class.
Lee got his assessment and treatment at Counseling Resources of Ellicott City, while Burke got his in Essex.
The differences in treatment regimes recommended for drivers with ostensibly similar cases has both surprised and concerned state and private substance abuse treatment professionals.
Peter F. Luongo, director of the Maryland Alcohol and Drug Abuse Administration, said he was surprised at the results of the study, especially by the degree of difference county to county and by the number of people who aren’t getting the level of treatment they need.
“Overall, it shows that this way of identifying people and moving them into treatment centers is not working the way it is supposed to work,” he said. “It would work better if there was a standard assessment and closer monitoring of people to make sure that people who are supposed to go to treatment do so.”
In Maryland, 66 percent of DWI offenders are determined to be “problem” drinkers, but that percentage varies widely by county, ranging from 49 percent in Garrett County to 88 percent in Queen Anne’s County.
According to the study, in Anne Arundel County the percentage assessed as problem drinkers is 66 percent; in Baltimore County, 75 percent; in Howard County, 56 percent; in Montgomery County, 55 percent and in Kent County, 84 percent.
“We don’t know yet why there is so much variance,” said Luongo. “We want the counties to look at this.”
Amelia M. Arria, one of the authors of the report, said the method for assigning offenders as “problem” versus “social” drinkers, which determines the level of treatment needed, varies widely.
Most centers use tests that measure how much a person drinks, but they use different ones. “The assessment process is really center-specific,” Arria said. “When they’re not doing the same tests, it’s hard to build policy on drunk driving.”
“Social” drinkers are supposed to enroll in a social drinkers’ alcohol education course, which consists of 12 hours of group instruction. “Problem” drinkers are supposed to take a 26-hour course and may also attend separate counseling sessions.
Many people choose to have their assessment prior to going to court, but alcohol assessment and education may be required as a condition of probation following conviction for DWI.
The study also found that the income of the offender may influence the likelihood of being assessed as a problem drinker. Seventy-five percent of those making less than $10,000 per year are assessed to be problem drinkers, while only 50 percent of those making $75,000 or more per year were categorized that way in Maryland, according to the report.
“A study like this will point out the gaps in our knowledge,” Arria said. “It will help us determine what else we need to do.”
Thomas Benner, former DWI Coordinator for the Maryland Alcohol and Drug Abuse Administration who is now director of Addiction Recovery Services in Columbia, called the assessment process “confusing for everyone.”
He said he often visited treatment centers where people were being assigned to the wrong level of treatment.
“It was a problem then, and it is still a problem today,” he said. “Many people are getting a lower rating than they should. Programs are reluctant to do an assessment and say that someone needs treatment because people will say ‘that’s not what my attorney told me, he said I can just take classes.'”
Benner said this is a disservice to the public because if people don’t get the right treatment, they are likely to drink and drive again. Also, there are a lot of repeat offenders because DWI education programs aren’t very effective, he said.
“The whole system in Maryland needs to be looked at and redone,” he said.
William Kerr, co-owner of Chesapeake Counseling Services, where Burke received his alcohol assessment and treatment, said the center uses several methods to asses DWI offenders.
Offenders are rated on factors such as their blood alcohol content and whether or not they can remember the date of the incident. Then, a counselor makes a recommendation for treatment based on the evaluation, he said.
“Everybody who gets a DWI is not an alcoholic,” Kerr said, “but at the same time, a lot of people think they are simply social drinkers when theyÕre not.”
Lawmakers are looking into the DWI issue, Benner said, but some legislators are also attorneys, and they may not want things to change.
“It’s a hot topic in Annapolis right now, but there are a lot of people who have a stake in the system being the way it is,” he said. “It’s a big business defending drunk drivers.”
Del. William A. Bronrott, D-Montgomery, said the report’s findings are “symptomatic of a broken system when it comes to drunk driving in general.”
“Far too few resources are being dedicated to this problem, and there is a lack of uniformity in the way offenders are assessed and treated around the state,” he said.
Burke, the driver who was caught speeding on the way back from Taco Bell in Towson, finished 26 weeks of alcohol classes at Chesapeake Counseling Services, and in August, he had his day in court.
Judge Dana Levitz at the Baltimore County Circuit Court, sentenced him to three years probation and a fine of $80 per month until his probation period ends. He is now serving that sentence, and said he will never drink and drive again. “I haven’t driven drunk since I got the DWI, and I will never do it again,” he said. “I learned my lesson.”