Source: Lake Geneva Regional News

Program tackles drunken drivers

by Dave Bretl - Walworth County Administrator

November 17, 2011

Walworth Countyís Intergovernmental Cooperation Council met on Oct. 25 to discuss a number of important issues facing the county. Among the topics addressed by the council, whose members include the chief elected officer of each town, city and village in the county as well as the county board chair, was an explanation of a new drunk driving treatment court by Circuit Court Judge David Reddy.

It isnít unusual to pick up a newspaper and read that someone in the state has been arrested for having driven drunk, numerous times, over the past five or 10 years. Iím not sure what the record is, but it is often hard for me to imagine how someone could have even had the opportunity to acquire seven or more convictions, in a relatively short period of time.

Drunk drivers pose some obvious risks to the traveling public, in terms of the lives and property destroyed by their behavior. A lesser known, but still serious danger, is the one posed to taxpayers. A large percentage of beds in county jails and state prisons are occupied by drunk drivers. The cost of housing these offenders requires a greater share of tax dollars each year. Our experience here in Walworth County is no exception.

Due to an ever-increasing number of prisoners, it appeared that we were on the ďfast-trackĒ to expand our 16-year old jail. The price tag of a jail addition was estimated to be $11.5 million. That cost did not include the millions of dollars that the county would need to spend to staff the new space.

Confronted with these costs, the Countyís Criminal Justice Coordinating Committee (CJCC), whose members are stakeholders in the criminal justice system, including judges, law enforcement officials, the district attorney, public defender, and others, began looking for solutions. There arenít a lot of easy answers to the issue of jail overcrowding. Any new program needs to keep the public safe. In many cases, jail time is the only way to accomplish that goal. One program that has emerged from months of planning by the CJCC is operating while intoxicated (OWI) court. OWI court is designed to break the cycle of addiction that, all too frequently, causes individuals to re-offend. Unlike traditional court, where proceedings typically end at sentencing, OWI court is an ongoing process. The goal is to ensure participants receive treatment over the course of 48 weeks, or more, and donít re-offend after they graduate from the program.

OWI court is available to qualifying Walworth County residents who are facing their third drunk driving conviction. After they are arrested, defendants are provided information about the program. They still have the option to skip treatment court and enter the traditional court system, which may include a trial or simply serving their jail time under existing drunk driving laws. There are at least two reasons, however, why a defendant may choose to plead guilty and participate in OWI court. First, they may genuinely be committed to solving their drinking problem. Secondly, if they successfully complete the program, the amount of time that they spend in jail, the fine that they receive and the amount of time they spend without a driverís license can all be reduced.

One key to OWI court is to get defendants to court as quickly as possible after their arrest. This makes sense to me based on my experience prosecuting drunken driving tickets years ago. The shock and embarrassment of being arrested for drunk driving will cause some people to re-evaluate their lifestyle and commit to changing it. As time passes between their arrest and first court appearance, however, that shock starts to wear off. Denial of the problem and old habits soon return.

Not everyone can participate in the program. Individuals with a record of prior violent offenses or those whose drunk driving led to a homicide or serious bodily injury are among those who are not allowed in OWI court. OWI court, itself, consists of four phases. Each phase lasts a minimum of 12 weeks but may last much longer, depending upon how treatment is progressing. Substance abuse counseling and random urine tests are features of all four phases. The first phase is designed to stabilize and treat the alcohol addiction. Participants who successfully complete the requirements of each phase advance in the program until they reach the final phase, which is designed to help them maintain recovery.

OWI court is a time-consuming process. In early phases, defendants appear in court at least twice a month. OWI court team members, including the defense and prosecuting attorney, probation and surveillance agents and the treatment provider, report on the defendantís progress. The presiding judge considers all of this input and directs the defendant through the program. Progress is praised and negative behavior sanctioned.

Government is often criticized for its lack of innovation. Maintaining the status quo is often considered the path of least resistance. It requires minimal effort and poses little risk for policy-makers. The problem with the status quo, in the case of drunk driving, is that it doesnít work very well. OWI court has had promising results in jurisdictions that have implemented it. CJCC members deserve credit for trying it in Walworth County.

The opinions expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of the Walworth County Board of Supervisors.