SHSU Intern Tasha Arevalo stands in front of a MADD poster bearing the photos of victims lost to drunken driving.
"It was a learning experience every day," said Arevalo, who monitored misdemeanor DWI cases in Harris County’s 15 courts over the summer. "It’s not the same thing every day...I want other people to get involved. You are doing good in everything you do. You see the difference, and you see it all happening right there in front of you."
Arevalo said she witnessed success firsthand in a Harris County DWI court. A recently released defendant told the court he had started drinking when his wife died shortly after they were married. He felt lost and, without help, he just kept on drinking. But after coming through the program and getting the assistance he needed, he became sober.
"We changed this person, and they will change another person," said Arevalo. "It is not something you read in a book; you are seeing it firsthand."
At 21, Arevalo has the legal right to drink, but after this internship, she said she will never drink and drive.
"I have seen the victims and heard the crimes," Arevalo. "It can happen to anyone. There is not a face to a victim until you actually meet them."
Not only did Arevalo’s presence serve as a constant reminder of the victims in the courtroom, she helped the MADD organization keep valuable statistics on the overall performance of the courts on drunken driving cases to build a better bridge among the public, the judiciary and law enforcement on the issue. The Southeast Texas Chapter covers 10 counties in the state.
"Interns help expand the number of courts we can attend," said John McNamee, Affiliate Executive Director for the MADD chapter. "They help us increase our outreach in education. It brings a fresh perspective having college students come in. They are very eager and very smart, and they work hard during their internships. They help to save lives and change behaviors."
Each day, MADD monitors an average of 15-30 drunken driving cases in court, including daily dockets and trials, and records information on plea bargains, deferrals, and jury selection, to name a few. The standard action in misdemeanor DWI cases in Houston is for the defendant to attend drug or alcohol counseling, perform community service, pay a fine and serve 30 days in jail.
MADD also researches the background of each case for detailed information on the offense, including past records, arresting agencies and officers, and court actions. This data is included in the national MADD database that is presented to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.
“We definitely depend on interns and volunteers to help our cause and mission,” said Alicia Parmley, a 1992 SHSU graduate and Court Monitoring Program Specialist at MADD. “They definitely get to do a lot of things. They help do research, investigations and various aspect of the courts.”
In addition to her work in the courtroom, Arevalo got insight on the behind-the scene aspects of cases, visiting with judges and attorneys, reviewing attorneys notes and documents, and researching the background of each case. She also got to sit in on a Victim Impact Panel, where victims of DWI meet with offenders face-to-face to discuss how the crime has changed their lives.
During a courtroom break, one judge struck up a conversation with Arevalo, asking the intern for her opinion on the value of victim impact panels and the judge’s performance on the bench. The judge even offered her a future internship in her office.
"All these people are willing to talk to you and are willing to teach you,” Arevalo said. “They are also saying what can I do to help you….It made me confident in myself and gave me the tools to decide what to do in the future. Everyone was willing to help you learn and take you under their wing. I’m ready to go out and take on the world.”
Because of her internship, Arevalo has decided to go to law school. She saw how courts are struggling with a overcrowding and a lack of prosecutors and judges to do the job.
"There are not enough people," said Arevalo. "You see the stress on everyone. You want to think the courts are perfect and that everyone gets their time in court."
In addition to her role in court, Arevalo participated in public education events, like college programs, a fundraising walk, and community fairs. MADD also presents programs in schools and offers services to victims, such as counseling, advocacy and assistance with planning funerals.
“We are trying to lower the fatality rate,” said Parmley. “Our mission is to eliminate drunken driving and prevent underage drinking.”