A professed “binge alcoholic” arrested three times in nine years for driving drunk, Farris Hamideh is now a success story.
He’s a graduate of a Tarrant County court program that seeks to rehabilitate chronic DWI offenders, not by locking them up, but by addressing the root cause of their crime, alcoholism.
Hamideh, of Fort Worth, hasn’t had a drink since his arrest on July 4, 2012. He is a self-employed car wholesaler. Through two divorces, he’s maintained healthy relationships with his two college-age daughters and fourth-grade son.
In an interview this week, he declared the intensive, four-year-long Felony Alcohol Intervention Program invaluable to his sobriety. He hopes to help others overcome their addictions, and prevent would-be drunks from getting behind the wheel.
Yet, Hamideh and others with similar backgrounds and arrest histories in the program should never have been admitted into it, the governor’s office reported. In fact, the Criminal Justice Division, citing risk-assessment data, determined that four in five participants in the probation program shouldn’t even be in it.
The governor’s office believes the data reveals that most DWI offenders are at low risk of being arrested again, and such programs are for high-risk offenders.
That interpretation, plus a shrinking pool of money to distribute to a growing number of statewide court programs requesting larger grants, led the state to strip the Tarrant County program of the $140,000 it was sending to treat 150 participants each year.
“It is an interesting public policy issue about the inordinate amount of DWIs,” said Greg Shugart, criminal courts administrator for Judge Robb Catalano, who oversees the program. “But the court can only handle what’s put in front of us.”
Since the inception of the program in November 2006, court officials reported more than 45,000 DWI arrests in Tarrant County, or about 350 every month. The probation department directly supervises 4,500 felony and misdemeanor offenders on probation for some type of DWI-related offense.
The brainchild of Tarrant County District Attorney Sharen Wilson when she was still on the bench, the program, known as a specialty court, will continue to operate, but at half-capacity. The Tarrant County Community Supervision and Corrections Department managed to reallocate $70,000 for the program.
“The purpose of these specialty courts is we don’t want to put these people in jail. They’re not criminals,” said Fort Worth attorney Jason Howard, with the firm Barnett, Howard & Williams, which handles DWI cases. “Often, they suffer from alcohol abuse disorders and regular probation may not help them solve alcohol issues.”
As of Sept. 1, the program no longer adds participants as others complete treatment, and will gradually whittle down to 75 participants, potentially returning drunk drivers to the roads.
Flawed risk assessment?
The Texas Risk Assessment System began in January 2015 to provide a score to determine an offender’s chances of returning to the criminal justice system.
Specialty courts — which also include drug court, veterans court and mental health court programs — are intended for high-risk, high-need offenders.
Tarrant County court officials report 85 percent of the people who start the program finish without relapsing.
“The individuals that we are targeting are the severe alcoholics and also those that are ready to make a change,” Tarrant County probation officer Scott Schroeder said. “It is laying a foundation so once the time they get all the way through probation they’re able to continue to use the tools that they’ve learned in order to stay sober.”
Offenders deemed a high risk to return to the criminal justice system, the governor’s office reported, tend to have low income, low education, an insufficient support system or mental health issues. Tarrant County’s self-reported risk-assessment scores, according to the governor’s office, show 80 percent to 85 percent of program participants, those with at least three drunken driving convictions, to be low-risk.
Those offenders typically have a steady income, a reliable family support system, are better educated and typically older. Their odds of being re-arrested are considered low.
Hamideh, 46, might as well be the poster boy.
Cobi Tittle, assistant director of the Community Supervision and Corrections Department, said risk-assessment scores of DWI offenders should be viewed differently of other criminals.
“We do not supervise these DWI offenders as low-risk because it could be dangerous for the community,” Tittle said. “It does not mean they don’t need to be supervised at a high level.”
Chronic DWI offenders do not set out to commit a criminal act, but rather the use of alcohol drives their criminal behavior, Tittle said. Chronic DWI offenders typically have underlying alcohol abuse issues, which are more likely to go unresolved with jail time and traditional probation.
“It’s really sad ...”
Hamideh said he didn’t drink daily. In fact, he could go long stretches without alcohol. But when he did drink, he couldn’t stop. And when he couldn’t stop he lost all ability to reason. He couldn’t stop himself from getting in his car and turning the ignition.
The day he got busted, July 4, 2012, was also the day his son turned 4. He was being booked during the birthday party he had planned.
Hamideh, like many DWI offenders, said he never ran afoul of the law when alcohol wasn’t involved.
“Once I start drinking, I can’t make a rational decision ... ,” Hamideh said. “I knew that before. It’s just that the alcohol controls my choices rather than me being able to control those choices. [This program] has changed my behaviors is what happened.”
In 2016, 987 people were killed in crashes involving alcohol in Texas, according to the Texas Department of Transportation. Eighteen who died were 11 years old or younger.
In cities that fall fully or at least partly in Tarrant County, there were 1,763 crashes involving alcohol in 2016, and 33 deaths.
“It’s really sad for us because it was a need and I think these courts were filling those needs,” the attorney Howard said.