Staffing shortages at the Alabama Safety Institute (ASI) due to COVID-19 have led to communication problems for some seeking to attend the nonprofit’s court-referred traffic and DUI programs, but Executive Director Steve Scarcliff said the issue is being addressed internally.
A nonprofit, ASI is contracted through the Alabama Administrative Office of Courts (AOC) and provides drivers education, DUI and other court-referral services related to substance abuse. The drivers education courses allow traffic offenders who meet certain criteria to attend a four-hour class and avoid points being assessed against their driving records, which could negatively impact their insurance rates.
It’s unclear how many defendants go through one of ASI’s courses in an average year, but filings with the Internal Revenue Service indicate the nonprofit generated $448,117 in revenue in 2018 and more than $500,000 in 2017. A representative from AOC was unable to provide information about ASI’s contract and its services in state and local courts by this publication’s press deadline.
According to ASI’s website, “All persons interested in ASI programs are required to call the office,” including those who are referred to one of their courses in court. However, in some cases, drivers education courses are supposed to be completed before an offender’s scheduled court date.
Last month, a Lagniappe employee trying to resolve a traffic ticket from the city of Mobile had difficulties scheduling a drivers education course with ASI. For more than two weeks, calls to ASI led to a pre-recorded message saying the office was closed due to COVID-19. It would then instruct callers to contact the office by phone, but did not give callers an option to leave a voicemail.
Asked about the issue, Scarcliff acknowledged ASI’s staff had not gotten to some calls that have come in recently because many staff members are working from home due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
“We have four employees that are furloughed due to the coronavirus, and our limited staff is answering the phone as fast as possible,” Scarcliff wrote in an email. “The closure of the courts for 10 weeks caused a backlog of cases that the courts, as well as Alabama Safety Institute, are dealing with.”
He noted some ASI employees suffer from underlying issues that could put them at risk for more serious complications from COVID-19, which is why they were working remotely. According to Scarcliff, that left “a very small staff that was inundated with too many phone calls.”
Debbie McGowin, director of courts for the Mobile Municipal Court, told Lagniappe traffic clerks with the municipal court have heard from some other motorists who’ve had similar issues contacting ASI but couldn’t say exactly how many.
She also noted in-person hearings for traffic violations were suspended for more than two months due to COVID-19 before resuming in June. That same month, the Mobile Police Department (MPD) launched a traffic enforcement initiative that led to 107 speeding tickets and another 48 citations for moving violations.
“There have been some limited complaints during the shutdown,” McGowin said. “One of our traffic clerks personally attempted to call the 251 number on their website and couldn’t get through, but then tried the 800 number and was able to. She’s just been giving that number out since then.”
While ASI does have a toll-free, 1-800 number, the local number is what motorists are typically given. That’s the number “all persons interested in ASI programs” are instructed to call on the organization’s website, and the only number listed in the information that’s typically handed out with tickets from MPD.
The difficulty getting in touch with ASI may have caused some frustration, but McGowin said it wouldn’t have caused legal problems for anyone. According to her, ASI has representatives in court for in-person traffic proceedings, and even if someone isn’t able to complete a drivers education course before their trial date, that wouldn’t negatively impact them or preclude them from enrolling in an ASI course later.
Scarcliff said he was first made aware of the issues after being contacted by a reporter, but said prompt steps would be taken to make sure callers can reach someone at ASI during regular business hours.
“When something comes to light that shows you’re not doing what you should be for the people you serve, you change that, and we will be implementing some things that will make it easier to have someone to talk to,” Scarcliff said. “We’re not a government entity but when people deal with us, sometimes they think we are. We are in the process of correcting the problem to the best of our ability.”
Since speaking with reporters, Scarcliff’s personal cell phone number has been added to ASI’s outgoing message for those who don’t reach someone in the office. Representatives have also answered during more recent calls to the office.
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