Beyond Drinking and Driving

A number of Minnesota jurisdictions are experimenting with more aggressive and invasive programs to deal with repeat drunk-driving offenders.

          In addition to monitoring drunk drivers before trial and mandating chemical dependency treatment, Dehn frequently places them back on the monitor at some point during the probationary period following their release. "They are still at risk," he says, "especially during the second and third years of probation when all that's typically being done is to follow them with a paper trail. According to Dehn, this measure helps to keep potential reoffenders from straying. "People tell me they don't like this intrusive, Big Brother stuff in their homes so they'll start going to Alcoholics Anonymous, get a sponsor, and continue to stay straight. And if they do it, I won't put them on the monitor," says Dehn.

          While he acknowledges that some consider his methods extreme, Dehn maintains that the problems inherent with repeat drunk drivers requires a strict but multifaceted approach. "We need to use the time we have them in our custody more effectively. We need to get them help," he contends. And while he similarly concedes that forcing sobriety on a drinker is not an ideal approach, he nonetheless maintains that he receives letters from defendants and their families thanking him. "This is the first time that some of these people have drawn a sober breath for an extended period of time. Their families are especially grateful," he says. Dehn also claims that his approach saves both the county and the state millions of dollars each year: "The first year of our program, the [state] number crunchers said we would be saving $12 million in jail bed space. At $55 dollars a day per person, the numbers add up quickly." In addition to saving the cost of jail space, the driver pays the $8 daily monitor fee and continues to work, thus keeping the family from applying for financial assistance.

          Since Dehn's program began, nine other jurisdictions have implemented similar repeat offender programs. Hennepin County, which accounts for nearly 20 percent of statewide drunk driving charges, has kicked off its own program within the past two weeks. While the "Multiple DWI Intervention Program" has yet to mandate pre-trial electronic monitoring, its methods mirror those used in Dakota and Anoka Counties. "We're excited about the possibilities," says Renee Merkins of the Alternative Programs division of Hennepin County corrections. The program targets third-time offenders and combines intense supervision with chemical dependency treatment, behavioral workshops, and random drug/alcohol screenings.

          But while Hennepin County has toughened its stance, in neighboring Ramsey County, judges, attorneys, and corrections officials are struggling to hold their own. "It's a question of resources," says George Courchane, assistant director of adult correction services for the county. "For the past three years, we have applied for state moneys for an intensive probation program and have been turned down." That does not mean, however, that drunk driving is treated lightly in his jurisdiction, says Courchane. "Offenders who qualify to serve their workhouse time on home monitoring are subject to random, unannounced visits. If they use, even if it's on the 29th of a 30-day sentence, they have to go to the workhouse and do the full 30 days," he says. And county probation officers are working smarter, he says, by trying to target who's prone to relapse and monitoring their actions more closely. "But our case load is still too heavy," he sighs. "We try to be more responsive, but funding is a huge issue."

          While it may be too soon to tell, Dehn and others says that preliminary studies boast a recidivism rate between just 8 and 10 percent. It doesn't necessarily mean that anyone has stopped drinking, but it does appear that fewer repeaters are getting back behind the wheel of a car. And that, says Dehn, may be the best anyone can hope for.

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