|OWI court takes new approach to ending repeat drunken driving|
|OWI court takes new approach to ending repeat drunken driving|
|Written by Todd Mishler/Walworth County Sunday|
|Friday, 02 December 2011 12:03|
Walworth County Circuit Court Judge Robert Kennedy makes a point Tuesday during a session of the new Walworth County Operating While Intoxicated Court. The collaborative intervention program aims to change defendants’ behavior and keep them from re-offending. Dan Plutchak/staff
ELKHORN — In life, unlike in baseball, three strikes doesn’t necessarily mean you’re out. However, participants in the new Walworth County Operating While Intoxicated Court quickly learn that they may never get a better chance for a positive, productive life if they swing and miss at this opportunity.
County officials have studied the sobering combination of drinking and driving for most of the past decade — a problem that all too often has ended in tragedy — and they’re optimistic that this new behavior modification model will help stop impaired driving incidents one defendant at a time.
Up to this point, current strategies haven’t done enough to curb recidivism, as statistics show: The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Administration said Wisconsin recorded the highest rate of drunken drivers in the nation in 2008.
And residents in Walworth County have been among the biggest offenders. The Wisconsin Office of Justice Assistance reported that nearly 1,000 people were arrested for OWI in 2007. The county registered 700 drunken driving arrests in 2010, the 12th highest figure among the 72 counties, and 116 convictions for OWI third offense.
OWI court started Oct. 4 for the program’s first five participants, who must appear in Judge Robert Kennedy’s courtroom at the Walworth County Judicial Center in Elkhorn every other Tuesday for review hearings.
Walworth County’s venture is one of about 10 in the state, and Kennedy said early results indicate that the program is off to a good start.
“I had real concerns about a couple of our participants, but they’ve turned the corner and we haven’t had a single positive (drug) test so far,” Kennedy said. “That’s fantastic, considering people with these problems. We’ve set high expectations, and we intend to meet them.”
The intervention program lasts up to two years, with four phases of at least 12 weeks each. It was established for adults who have pleaded guilty to a third OWI offense and are having trouble staying sober.
Participants’ responsibilities include undergoing random urine screenings and home visits, alcohol monitoring, keeping contact with probation agents as directed, attending substance abuse counseling, seeking and maintaining employment and/or community service and paying treatment costs or court fees.
The collaborative effort includes the circuit court, prosecutor’s office, defense attorneys, the probation/parole and police departments, community agencies, case management and treatment programs.
Judge David Reddy, who took the bench in August, used creating the new court as part of his campaign platform. But he stressed that getting the program off the ground — and making it successful — takes a strong team effort.
“The Walworth County Criminal Justice Coordinating Committee, which is made up of a dynamic group of policymakers, had discussed this and made it a priority,” said Reddy, who along with team members attended training in Michigan in June. “Our goal was to implement the program within four months. But I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention the support we’ve received from (County Administrator) Dave Bretl. He understands the program’s benefits and the county board has provided funding.
“Probation is a key player in all of this, and law enforcement bought into it right away,” Reddy added. “And we’ve got a team evaluator, because we need to compile and analyze the data to be successful and reduce recidivism.”
The effort started as early as spring 2004, when the county board’s executive committee approved the forming of a task force to explore potential cost-saving measures within the criminal justice system. That group turned into the CJCC, and its focus became creating a cooperative, evidence-based program to tackle drunken driving.
In 2007, the committee adopted a relapse prevention effort called CATE, which stands for commitment accountability treatment evaluation program. David Thompson, deputy director of the county’s health and human services department, developed the model.
The latest numbers show that only three of the 54 graduates of CATE have been arrested for a fourth OWI, a 95 percent success rate. However, CATE, which currently takes in clients with third and fourth OWI convictions, is not funded. Participants must pay their own way, which eliminated many potential clients from participating.
That’s where the OWI court comes into play. The program has received major funding from the state Department of Corrections through Act 100, which was enacted in 2009, and like CATE, doesn’t require contributions from taxpayers.
Thompson and Elkhorn Police Chief Joel Christensen also are members of the OWI court task force. They are excited about the program’s early progress and what it means to reaching the ultimate goals — cutting costs and saving lives.
“The county board and CJCC have had their eyes on lowering the jail population for a long time, back to when they were talking about building a new jail,” said Thompson, who’s been the county’s psychologist since 1993 and HHS deputy director since 2007. “They’ve been looking at the statistics for a number of years, and a disproportionate number of inmates are there on OWI charges. Targeting why it’s been such a problem in Walworth County led to the CATE program, which has had a huge success rate but wasn’t available to ‘Joe Worker’ who didn’t have the funding or resources.”
Christensen has been with the Elkhorn Police Department for more than 20 years, the last nine as chief.
“We looked at this from several different angles, and my greatest concern was how repeat drunk drivers affect public safety,” Christensen said. “Another concern was trying to reduce alcohol-related accidents, because they cause most crashes in Walworth County.
“At the same time, it’s a big cost savings. There are so many related costs other than at the jail. There’s the lost time at work for victims, not to mention the hospital or medical expenses.
“The majority of inmates are there because of alcohol-related offenses, so we’ve researched and targeted that population,” Christensen said. “It’s a very risky population we’re working with, but this program means we’re heading in the right direction. The evidence shows that it works.”
Thompson said Walworth County would be ahead of the curve in addressing a problem that causes such devastation for offenders and victims of their actions.
“The most important piece to the OWI program is the constant judicial scrutiny, and that intensive oversight adds motivation (for participants),” Thompson said. “Second, it’s an effective treatment program based on the CATE model and available to anybody. And third, it provides the ability for all of the agencies to work closely together for better outcomes.”
Reddy and Kennedy agreed that the program will benefit all of those involved in the process.
“The best way to describe it is that it saves lives and saves money,” Reddy said. “The incentives allow participants to face the minimums when it comes to jail time, license suspension, time wearing monitoring devices and fines. Participants get the support system to deal with their issues, kick their drug dependency and have productive lives. And it keeps them off the road, which prevents them from hurting or killing others.”
“We expect that there will be setbacks, and hopefully the public understands that,” Kennedy said. “But we’ve seen too many fourth, fifth and sixth OWI offenses and shattered lives. The monetary savings alone will be tremendous, but the saving of more lives will be incalculable.”