Rock County OWI court looks to put the brakes on repeat offenders

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Sunday, September 23, 2012

— Prosecutors last year filed 817 intoxicated driving cases in Rock County Court.

They are on pace to match that this year with 604 cases filed as of Sept. 17.

Between mid-August and mid-September, while The Gazette gathered data about intoxicated driving in Rock County, 45 cases were filed.

"That's a huge amount of people on the road drinking and driving," said Elizabeth Pohlman McQuillen, the county's criminal justice planner and analyst.

This week, the county expects to launch a court designed to stop the cycle of addiction and driving. The OWI court has been two years in the making with input from the district attorney's office, the courts, criminal justice faculty at UW-Whitewater, corrections workers and alcohol and other drug abuse professionals.

The program targets third-offense intoxicated drivers and is meant to provide treatment to help addicts get sober.

Most importantly, it is an attempt to stop what many consider the most dangerous behavior in the county: intoxicated driving.

"The point is not because we are nice people," Judge Alan Bates said. "It's because we want to stop the carnage on the highways."

OWI court offers less jail and lower fines for people who participate.

The sentences for third-offense drunken drivers vary according to blood-alcohol content, driving record and aggravating circumstances. They range from 45 days to one year in jail, $600 to $4,000 in fines and 24 to 36 months of license revocation.

A reduced sentence might not be much motivation for a driver eligible for the minimum punishment, such as a driver with a blood-alcohol content below 0.10 and a clean driving record.

The motivation would be greater for someone with an unsafe driving record or a high blood-alcohol content at the time of arrest. A person in that situation could save thousands of dollars and spend a fraction of the time in jail.

Truly addicted

Third-offense intoxicated driving charges are criminal, so judges James Daley or Richard Werner will take the cases in their criminal courts.

Defense attorneys and caseworkers already are watching for third-time drunken drivers who could qualify for OWI court. A handful of people already were identified in late August, Pohlman McQuillen said.

Potential participants will be screened to evaluate their addiction to alcohol or other substances.

The program is intended for people who are addicted to alcohol and can't break the drinking and driving cycle without support. It's not meant for people who aren't substance-dependent but who drank too much and made the mistake of driving, Bates said.

"We are looking for the people for whom the embarrassment or shock of being arrested or the sense of community responsibility aren't enough to stop them from drinking and driving," Bates said. "We are looking for people who are truly addicted."

Participants must be Rock County residents charged as adults with third-offense intoxicated driving. They may not have been convicted in the past for a violent felony.

Qualified offenders who agree to the program will plead guilty, be convicted, sign a contract, be sentenced and placed on probation, Bates said.

The program should move eligible offenders quickly from arrest to conviction, Bates said.

"This shouldn't linger for nine months," Bates said. "This should happen in days."

That will take advantage of any feelings of guilt or remorse on the offender's part. When emotions are high, people could be more open to treatment options, he said.

In addition, a fast case could avoid complications such as a new OWI arrest while the OWI-third case is pending.

At least one of the people recommended for the program in August was in that situation, Pohlman McQuillen said.

Although the program hasn't started, the county already is learning that OWI cases are often tangled with other charges or legal issues.

"We are learning that each case is different," Pohlman McQuillen said.

To change their lives

While the goal is to stop intoxicated driving, the plan is to do so by helping participants remain sober, Bates said.

"Even if the initial motivation is to get less jail time and to pay less in fines, we are hopeful that we can convince them the real incentive is to change their lives," Bates said.

First, participants will have to serve some jail time. Wisconsin law requires that at least 48 hours of an OWI sentence must be spent inside a jail. After that, participants could be sent home with one of the jail's GPS and alcohol-monitoring bracelets.

When the sentences are served, the participants will move into the probation system and get a new bracelet.

"These people are going to be kept under wraps," Pohlman-McQuillen said. "Again, this is about public safety. You don't want these people on the road."

Each participant will be assigned a caseworker from Rock Valley Community Programs. They will be subject to random house checks and drug tests to insure compliance, Bates said.

They will be assigned to appropriate treatment groups and programs. Among other things, caseworkers will help participants get qualified for their occupational drivers licenses.

Although it might seem counterintuitive to help a convicted intoxicated driver get back his or her driving privileges, Bates said it makes good sense from a public safety standpoint. Most people find cars an essential part of daily life, and unlicensed drivers are a safety risk, "particularly when they try to elude an officer because they know that they do not have a license," Bates wrote in an email to The Gazette.

Such drivers could be a financial burden on the community because they usually are uninsured as opposed to licensed drivers who are required to have insurance, Bates wrote.

"OWI court is trying to change people's lives for public safety, and that includes the goal of sober, licensed drivers," Bates wrote.

Participants will pay $75 per month to participate. That money, along with $100,000 the county budgeted to start the program, is expected to be enough to keep the court operating for at least 18 months, Bates said.

The benefits have to be accessible and helpful so they are worth an offender's time, money and hard work, he said.

Twice per month, they will see Bates, who has been assigned to oversee OWI court in addition to his work as the juvenile court judge.

Bates' role is to provide positive feedback for the person who is recovering from an addiction to alcohol or other drugs.

"Best practices include monitoring often, meeting face-to-face often and praising often," Bates said. "We will recognize failures, but we will focus on recognizing success."

Last updated: 4:35 pm Tuesday, August 27, 2013

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