VIDEO: San Mateo County “First Chance” program gives DUI drivers jail or unlocked dorm

 

SAN MATEO COUNTY (KRON) — So you have made the mistake of driving under the influence. What next?

Well, there are two possibilities. The officer, at his or her discretion, could give you a choice between spending a night in jail or an unlocked dorm.

That option has been available in San Mateo County for almost 25 years, made possible by a program called First Chance.

A rough night out for one man who was stopped and arrested by police for drinking and driving.

And he was brought to a sobering station in Burlingame where the doors are unlocked and there is no security.

“The idea was treatment rather than incarceration,” First Chance Program Director Janel Guinane said.

First Chance is a program operated by the non-profit organization StarVista in San Mateo County.

Guinane says since the program started nearly a quarter century ago, some 60,000 people have been treated here.

“It can happen to anyone, you know, a lot of times it’s not the chronic alcoholic that gets pulled over for DUI,” Guinane said. “It’s someone who makes the mistakes, someone who miscalculates how much they’ve had, someone who drinks, you know, just a little bit over the limit. And someone who never does it again.”

The sobering station, as it’s called, is open 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

It’s up to the arresting officer whether the intoxicated person is brought here or taken to the main jail in Redwood City.

The San Mateo County Sheriff’s Office adds though that that person can’t have a history of violence.

“The doors are not secured, so if I leave you at First Chance, you could walk out,” Det. Sal Zuno said. “Now, if that happens, all they’re going to do is they’re going to call us, and call the police and say ‘this person who you just booked into First Chance just walked out the door, and you’re going to get into more trouble and more charges.”

San Mateo County District Attorney Steve Wagstaffe says almost all law enforcement agencies in the county are involved in the program.

Those agencies pay a fee each year based on the size of their city or town, totaling about $800,000 combined, which keeps the program running.

“They’re still cited, and the police agency will refer the case to my office,” Wagstaffe said. “We’ll file misdemeanor charges on the person. They come to court just the same as if they’d been booked into the county. The only difference is that they’re not booked into the county jail, they’re taken to the First Chance program.”

Wagstaffe says programs like this are partly the reason why there is no jail overcrowding in San Mateo County.

And he says it is especially helpful to agencies like the Pacifica Police Department which doesn’t even have a jail, just holding cells.

“They don’t have to take an officer off the street for 3 or 4 hours while they drive the person down here to Redwood City to book them in, go through all that process, and then drive back to Daly City or Pacifica,” Wagstaffe said. “So, it’s been a wonderful program and law enforcement pays for it.”

All employees at First Chance are also licensed or registered councilors.

“It’s a wonderful thing,” Guinane said.

And they help DUI offenders get treatment during and after their stay.

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