OWI courts aim to reduce repeat drunken driving

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Sunday, January 15, 2012

You wouldn't expect a repeat criminal offender to think of a judge as a friend, but that's the kind of change that intoxicated driving court is making in Walworth County, Judge Robert Kennedy said.

"This is really something else," Kennedy said. "We end up making friends for life. That makes a difference."

Walworth County started its program in October 2011 and is up to 10 participants from an initial enrollment of five, Kennedy said. The first participants likely will graduate in October, although it could be as early as August or September.

Rock County expects to have its OWI court start operating this year.

The courts in both counties follow statewide trends to address repeat intoxicated driving offenses.

In 2010, Walworth County recorded more than 700 intoxicated driving arrests, said Carlo Nevicosi, unit manager for the county's heath and human services mental health and addiction division. More than 20 percent of those arrests were repeat offenses, Nevicosi said. In 2010, Walworth County Court convicted 93 people of third-offense intoxicated driving, he said.

Walworth County officials are pleased with the results after a few months of operation.

"Not a single one of our people have violated," Kennedy said. "A couple have been late for treatments or appointments, but there has been no alcohol, no drugs."

Both counties budgeted $100,000 to start the courts. The cost is one of many similarities between Walworth County's program and Rock County's plan.

Kennedy and Rock County Judge Alan Bates answered questions about the programs in their respective counties:

Q: What is OWI court?

Kennedy: Some people charged with third-offense intoxicated driving can agree to participate in a treatment program in exchange for a reduced sentence. Participants serve minimum jail time, which is about 45 days. When they are released, they are automatically on probation and will wear alcohol and GPS monitoring bracelets. They agree to participate in a treatment program and appear every-other week in court to talk to a judge about their progress.

Q: What happens when someone agrees to participate?

Bates: The program will be divided into four phases. The first phase will be the most intensive and could include daily treatment in addition to a 12-step program. Participants could take an alcohol assessment and be required to give urine samples for screening. They could have to get a sponsor as part of a 12-step program and commit to remaining alcohol-free for a set number of days.

Q: Who qualifies for OWI court?

Kennedy: People who plead guilty to third-offense intoxicated driving. Participants must be Walworth County residents and must not have a history of violent offenses. The OWI charge cannot include homicide or injury by intoxicated use of a vehicle.

Q: Is participation voluntary or mandated?

A: In both counties, participation is voluntary. Participants have to plead guilty to the OWI charge before they can participate.

Q: What is the primary goal of OWI court?

Bates: "In drug court, the focus is treatment of drug problems," Bates said. "In OWI court, the focus is not necessarily the same."

The primary goal of OWI court is public safety, Bates said. Providing treatment for offenders can make it much more likely they can avoid re-offending, he said.

"Our goal is to keep them alcohol-free so they're not driving on the roads," Bates said.

Kennedy: He agrees that the primary goal is to make the roads safer. Accomplishing that likely requires offenders to stop drinking or using drugs.

"The primary goal is to stop drinking and driving," Kennedy said. "To tell you the truth, if you drink again, you'll probably drive again."

Q: Why does the county think this is a good way to spend resources?

Bates: "The community has told us they want the carnage to stop," Bates said. "Putting people in jail isn't stopping the carnage. We have to try something else."

National statistics show OWI courts don't cure the problem, "but it's dramatically better than what we have now," Bates said.

Q: Why does OWI court work?

Kennedy: "People can't cheat."

People who are on probation and not in OWI court aren't always made to wear alcohol-sensing bracelets. They might think they can drink and get away with it, and sometimes they do, Kennedy said.

"If they know they're going to get caught, it's a tremendous incentive," he said.

OWI court also provides rewards for good behavior, Kennedy said. In addition to reduced jail time, participants can save thousands of dollars in fines and fees, he said.

Bates: "We're results oriented," Bates said. "We focus on keeping them on task. It's not all just hammering them. The goal of an OWI treatment court is to make sure we give them positive reinforcement at a much higher level."

Last updated: 7:18 pm Thursday, December 13, 2012

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