MuskogeePhoenix.com, Muskogee, OK

September 1, 2013

Answers few for DUI offenders

DA: For repeat offenders, prison is only choice

By Thad Ayers
Phoenix Staff Writer

— Ralph Andrew Sonday Jr. is afraid he might kill someone someday as a result of his addiction.

The 56-year-old Muskogee man is facing his 14th alcohol-related set of charges in Oklahoma from a July 4 car crash that injured one person. Sonday, who said he has a master’s degree from Northeastern State University and a law certificate from the University of Tulsa, is incarcerated at the Muskogee County/City Detention Facility.

Sonday’s addiction keeps landing him in jail, and multiple attempts at treatment haven’t helped, he said.

“I’ve tried,” Sonday said. “What they’ve tried to offer is ‘You just stop.’ I’ve been in the (Alcoholics Anonymous) program. People get help through that program, but there’s nothing to help them get established.”

Like Sonday, people convicted of driving under the influence of drugs or alcohol often return to Oklahoma’s correction system because of inadequate treatment, said Muskogee County District Attorney Larry Moore.

“These individuals go to prison. If they do not get treated in prison, they come out with a problem,” Moore said. “If you don’t get treated for what got you in there, when you get out you have the same issues that actually led you to prison.”

And with repeat offenders, Moore said the only choice — instead of rehabilitation — is to put people in prison.

Such may be the case with Sonday who has been convicted of 13 felony alcohol-related offenses since 1984. He said he drinks to cope with pain from old sports-related injuries.

Former alcoholics and drug abusers don’t get enough support to recover from addictions, Sonday said.

Moore said those who have had similar situations are not getting taken care of, which, he said, leaves the state with one choice.

“The only alternative we have is, if you’re going to drink and drive, we’re going to remove you from society,” he said. “You don’t want your parents, children and family to get killed, so we have to lock you up.”

Eight of Sonday’s DUIs have come from Muskogee County, three from Tulsa County, one from Cherokee County and one felony conviction for actual physical control in Wagoner County.

Oklahoma 27th District Attorney Brian Kuester said that charge likely means he was parked and resting in his vehicle while under the influence.

Wagoner and Cherokee counties are part of Kuester’s jurisdiction.

Oklahoma statutes on DUIs tend to limit what can be done to correct repeat offenders, Kuester said.

“We’ve got to live with the law that we’ve got, and we do the best that we can,” he said.

Enforcement by the state depends on the number of offenses.

A DUI is defined in state statues as having a blood or breath alcohol concentration of .08 or more two hours after an arrest.

Felony DUI can carry sentences with the Oklahoma Department of Corrections of one to 20 years, depending on whether it’s the first, second or third felony within 10 years of a previous conviction. Fines range from an upper limit of $2,500 for the first felony offense to an upper limit of $5,000 for three or more felonies, according to state statutes.

Other sentencing options and additions are probation, court-ordered rehabilitation, community service, license suspension or the addition of an ignition interlock device requiring one to give an instant breathalyzer test before operating a vehicle.

Felony DUI happens after someone has had a misdemeanor conviction. A misdemeanor conviction carries a penalty of up to one year in jail, participation in a rehabilitation program, and/or a fine of no more than $1,000.

In the past, Sonday has been ordered to undergo alcohol treatment, had his license suspended several times and had multiple prison sentences.

Cpl. Peter Liimatta with the Muskogee Police Department said he couldn’t estimate the number times he’s seen the same people come through the system to get tested for drugs and alcohol. He said suspending licenses and adding interlock devices are not a sure-fire deterrent.

“If someone wants to drive, they’re going to drive,” said the 18-year veteran. “It doesn’t matter if they have their license or not.”

Moore said his office will pursue a maximum prison sentence for Sonday of 20 years, as well as look to revoke a previous suspended sentence. This could place Sonday in DOC custody for about 30 years.

But that doesn’t mean someone put in prison will get treatment, said Public Information Officer Jerry Massie of the DOC.

"There are more offenders with need for treatment than treatment beds available for them,” he said. “That’s a case not only in the corrections system, but community-wide.”

More than 25,000 offenders were in DOC in 2012, and nearly 2,400 of those incarcerated got substance abuse treatment, according to the department’s annual report.

That means only about 10 percent of offenders went through DOC treatment.

Massie estimated about 75 to 80 percent of people in the state’s correction system have substance abuse problems.

About 30 percent of those in the corrections system are there for drug or alcohol offenses. The average sentence for a DUI was 3.9 years, according to the report.

DOC gets as many offenders as possible through its system, but Massie said space just isn’t available and hasn’t been for some time. He said early detection is key to preventing future visits in the correctional system.

A lack of state and local funds factor into the ability to reach drug and alcohol offenders, he said.

“You’d have to have the programs available in the community to meet those needs,” Massie said. “And currently, it’s not there.”

Sonday said he could die in prison, but he continues to hold hope to get his problem under control or at least have his situation be an example to others.

“I’m hoping to get into a treatment program,” he said with tears in his eyes. “And if I end up staying here for the rest of my life, then so be it.”

Reach Thad Ayers at (918) 684-2903 or tayers@muskogeephoenix.com.