Counties seek a solution to repeat drunk drivingby Dan Gunderson, Minnesota Public Radio
Several Minnesota counties are trying a new approach to deal with repeat drunk drivers.
There are now seven DWI courts in the state that focus intensively on a small number of repeat drunk drivers.
Fergus Falls, Minn. — When Ottertail County officials first met to talk about a DWI court, there were a few skeptics in the room.
"I was probably opposed to it at the get-go. It runs counterintuitive to what we know as prosecutors," recalls Ottertail County Attorney David Hauser.
Hauser wondered if less punishment and more help was really the right solution for people who keep drinking and driving
"The cute little phrase that's often used is that a drug court is a 'hug a thug,' because what they get sentenced to are social services and sometimes there's a lesser penalty imposed," says Hauser. "But what there is, is a heightened supervision and accountability on a regular basis."
The accountability built into the program helped convince Hauser it might work for a group of people he's all to familiar with; those who've been in court several times for drunk driving arrests.
Hauser says he also talked with other prosecutors who have experience with DWI courts and they were enthusiastic about the new approach.
State court officials say the Ottertail County DWI court is one of seven in the state. Others are in Lake of the Woods, Beltrami, Hennepin, Cass, St. Louis South (Duluth), and Crow Wing.
Those who are part of DWI court will get chemical dependency treatment, help with medical or mental health issues and help with education or finding a job.
Repeat drunk drivers can volunteer for the program, or it might be part of their sentence.
The intense supervision will focus on 20 to 30 drunk drivers this year in Ottertail County.
District Judge Barb Hanson, who leads the project, will see each person in DWI court regularly, once a week to start. She'll get weekly reports from probation officers, substance abuse counselors and others who might be working with the offender.
Her job is to use a carrot and stick approach to encourage change. Drunk drivers in the program get their jail sentence reduced, but if they're not cooperative Judge Hanson can send them back to jail. She can also reward them when they are successful. Judge Hanson says she may hand out coupons for a free meal at a local restaurant, or other small rewards.
Research says DWI courts succeed or fail in large part because of a judge's ability to relate to offenders.
Judge Hanson says it will be a learning experience.
"I'm not certain that it will work. I'm hoping I have a style and manner of presiding over the DWI court that will allow relationships to be forged," says Judge Hanson.
She won't measure the program's success by statistics.
"I think any one person that can be assisted in making real life changes will be a success," says Hanson.
Drunk drivers selected for the DWI court will get a lot of attention. They'll see the judge regularly and they'll be well acquainted with their probation officer.
Ottertail County Probation Director Chuck Kitzman says grant funding will allow the county to hire probation staff specifically to monitor the DWI offenders.
"We don't have the resources right now to have a probation officer meet with them twice a week and then follow up with two to three drug tests in the field. We are going to do that with this group of offenders. They're going to see a lot of us," says Kitzman.
Many people believe accountability forces offenders to confront their alcohol or drug abuse.
There are no long term statistics on the success of drug or DWI courts in Minnesota, but courts in other states claim success rates of 70-percent or higher.
Chemical dependency counselor Terry Bedard says he doesn't know how successful the Ottertail County program will be, but he thinks people with a judge and probation officer watching them there will be more motivation to beat alcoholism.
"I believe that people who come into this with some ambivalence and some resistance are much more likely to be successful with the kind of monitoring and support they will receive in this program," says Bedard.
But that doesn't mean it will be easy. As Ottertail County Attorney David Hauser points out, many of the people who will go through the program have already tried to get sober several times and failed.
"Most people that get picked up on a DWI we will never see again. Because of the shame and embarrassment and cost, they learn their lesson," says Hauser. "Those are not the people that are appropriate for this program. Frankly, the people who are the best candidates are the people who are going to be the most difficult."
It may take up to two years for those people to complete DWI court. The program will cost the county more than the traditional sentence for drunk drivers. David Hauser says it may save money in the future if offenders stay out of trouble. But he expects the bigger payback will be improved public safety on Ottertail County roads.
- Morning Edition, 01/08/2008, 6:45 a.m.