By Sealy Smith Submitted
Every year, thousands of Mississippians are arrested for driving under the influence and receive a DUI. Mississippi carries harsh penalties for DUI offenders. These penalties usually include forty eight hours in jail, ninety-day driver’s license suspension, fines ranging from $250-$1,000, and court-mandated treatment for convicted drinking drivers. This treatment is a four-week course and commonly known as MASAP, Mississippi Alcohol Safety Education Program. MASEP is Mississippi’s statewide driver improvement program for first-time offenders convicted of driving under the influence of alcohol, or another substance which has impaired their ability to operate a motor vehicle. MASAP researchers, operators, and facilitators have been working hard since 1972 to maintain and improve the safety of our citizens on the Mississippi highways, and it has paid off. As a result of this hard work, MASAP courses have lowered the number of repeat offenders has declined throughout the years. The program consists of two interrelated units: the Operations Unit, and the Research and Development Unit. Dr. Angela Robertson works with her two assistants, Kathleen Gresham and Alyson Karges, to coordinate the research division of MASEP. It’s main mission is to design and evaluate the effectiveness of various education and rehabilitation modalities. The team conducts research that allows them to design, implement, and test the effectiveness of intervention and prevention strategies. “We’re pretty much always doing studies on MASEP and how we can make it even more effective. If the research shows that the program is not effective, we look to see how we can change it and make it better,” said Robertson. Robertson said that the program was significantly changed four times since 1972, after research revealed the inadequacy of the course. “The very first MASAP course was like a traditional classroom. It mainly focused on the education of alcohol and the body. A study in 1989 revealed that this method did not work. In 1989, the program was changed quite a bit. The program not only included informing people about health, laws, and the consequences of their actions, but also, added assessment feedback and counseling,” said Robertson. The Research and Development Unit also reported that the study in 1989 found that people who were convicted of DUI offenses, had usually driven impaired multiple times before actually receiving a ticket. “The earlier researchers assumed that most people who entered into MASEP were social drinkers, but what we found out in this first study was that most offenders had driven hundreds and hundreds of times before they were actually caught. This led us to look more at the actually individuals who entered the program and any alcohol- related problems that they might have. This is when we changed the assessment of people, provided treatment options, and found help for the people who had problems,” said Robertson. In 1996, a study revealed lower recidivism among MASEP participants, and in 2000 the program was updated again. Changes in the program consisted of twelve hour course, compared to the previous ten hour courses, added group discussions, more assessment feedback, and motivational counseling. “In 2000, we began moving from educating participants to counseling them. We worked with them to realistically solve their own problems and avoid future DUI offenses,” said Robertson. The most recent update of the program took place in 2008 and is still implemented in the current MASAP courses. “The latest overhaul of the program included even more thorough assessment of the individuals. Within these assessments, we found that people were using drugs, other than alcohol, and driving impaired. Therefore, we added a lot more content about various drugs, including legal and non-legal drugs. We began assessing for all substance abuse, not just alcohol. In more recent studies, we also discovered that several of the MASEP participants suffered from mental health problems. This encouraged us to create a program that would fix the individual’s problems, and fix them for good,” said Robertson. The recent change in the course also taught its participants through skills training, problem solving, and critical thinking skills. After ever change of the program, a study is ran to determine the effectiveness of the changes. The most recent study, regarding recidivism, revealed that DUI offenders who completed MASEP were less likely to repeat the crime. The study was performed by Robertson and her team and showed 32% of people that completed MASAP were charged on a second offense, compared to 45% of people that did not attend MASAP. “The program is really great. I’m not sure if there are any more changes that could be made to improve MASEP. The entire course is a huge eye-opener,” said MASEP Staff Specialist, Billy Brister. Brister represents the other division in MASEP, Operations. This division mainly focuses on creating a DUI control system by integrating the enforcement, judicial, rehabilitation, and education function. Brister, who serves as a member of the Alcohol Field Operations, also served as a Mississippi Highway Patrolman for over twenty-five years. The retired highway spends his time teaching and counseling in the MASEP classes. “It’s interesting to see what it’s like on this side of the DUI process. As a highway patrolman, my job was to get impaired drivers off of the road; as a MASEP specialist, my job is to intervene,” said Brister. The MASEP program’s mission includes providing education, rehabilitation, and referral information for the first-time DUI offender. Brister went on to explain that the program not only teaches and lectures, but also counsels. “The program really concentrates on the individual and fixing any problems that they might have. It is all about understanding the problem and then fixing it. Participants get out of it what they put into it. If they come into the course with a poor attitude, then they are going to get poor results, but if they are eager and willing to change, then they will find the program very beneficial,” said Brister. With fifty-two locations across the state, forty-two class facilitators with an equal number of assistant facilitators, and thirteen substitute facilitators, MASEP has numerous trained and devoted employees who administrate the actual MASAP courses. “Being a high school counselor has really enabled me to better instruct the MASEP classes. We often find several individuals in this program who need more than a classroom and teacher. Even for the participants who don’t have a major drinking problem, I think it’s always beneficial to have as many hands-on activities as possible,” said class facilitator, Monica Cummings. The MASEP participants are able to see several accounts of driving accidents related to alcohol, and the circumstances that follow them. They get to hear from actual people who drove impaired and injured others, and they do various exercises that reveal the true dangers of drinking and driving. “The participants are always shocked from what they see on the videos. It’s definitely hard to hear about drunk driving that results in death. We do a lot of dramatic things that force them to think about the consequences of their actions. My favorite is definitely getting the participants to calculate the total cost of their DUI; the total cost is typically $7000-10,000. Then, we tell them to divide that number by the number of drinks they consumed the night they received their DUI; it is usually around 5 to 10, and we tell them that there drinks that night were around $700- $1,000 each. I also wish that they would give us visually impaired goggles, just so the class could see how incredibly hard is to drive under the influence ,” said Cummings. Cummings is a counselor at Eupora High School and has been instructing MASEP classes for twelve years. Ever since she was hit by an impaired driver almost twenty years ago, Cummings has always had a strong passion for educating on the importance of responsible drinking and safe driving. “It’s really easy for me to be a part of something that I believe is so important. Through MASEP, several people are influenced, and many lives are better for it, “concluded Cummings.