Beyond Drinking and Driving

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

          For the past 10 years, local and national arrests for first-time drunk-driving offenses have been on a steady decline. But the number of those re-arrested on DWI charges has remained fairly constant; there have even been instances in which drivers have collected a DWI while awaiting trial on a previous DWI. In recent years, the Minnesota Legislature has opened its purse to county corrections agencies that devise programs to curb repeat offenses. And while the programs vary, one thing they have in common is intense supervision--so intense, some corrections officials say, that in certain counties around the metro area, drunk drivers are choosing jail over supervision.

          As judges can dole out wildly disparate sentences, state legislators have crafted a set of guidelines for dealing with this class of recidivists. A first DWI in Minnesota typically yields a fine, loss of license for 30 days, an alcohol assessment, and through-the-roof insurance rates for the next three years. For those without a drinking problem, the consequences of the first DWI will generally halt a driver from getting behind the wheel again after a night out on the town. For those who can't control themselves, the penalties become more severe with each violation. When a driver is popped for a second DWI within five years, or a third within 10 years, state law requires that he/she is sentenced to at least 30 days in jail. If a driver gets caught three times within five years, cops or judges can step in and confiscate the license plates. And by the fourth within five, the state has the authority to seize the car, sell it, and use the proceeds for DWI programs and education.

          Should these measures fail to deter a driver, however, upon the sixth arrest within ten years or the seventh within fifteen, he/she is automatically sentenced to a year in prison or remanded to an intensive probation program. According to Dakota County Attorney Jim Backstrom, the penalties for repeat drunk drivers need to get harsher sooner. He would like to make the fourth DWI in a person's lifetime a felony, and to lower the blood alcohol threshold for driving under the influence from .10 to .08. Backstrom points out that 23 states have adopted felony DWI laws for multiple offenders and calls our current state standard--according to which a second DWI within five years is a gross misdemeanor--tantamount to a slap on the wrist. "This is a major public safety issue," he says. "By the third time through, they've had plenty of opportunity to deal with their alcohol problem."

          Rather than wait for the state to enact tougher laws, Backstrom created a program called Safe Streets First in Dakota County; it has lately expanded to include Scott, Carver, Sibley, McCloud, and Goodhue counties as well. "The program is a series of intrusive actions applied to third-time offenders," he explains unapologetically. "It's not my intention to punish alcoholism, but rather the conscious decision to get behind the wheel and drive drunk." Drunk drivers within Backstrom's jurisdiction spend a minimum of 30 days on an electronic monitor--which entails either wearing a tracking "bracelet" that confines an offender to his or her home, or a newly developed video-teleconferencing system that allows an offender some physical freedom but requires they return home three times a day to blow a breath test. Nine to 12 months of chemical dependency treatment is similarly required, and the $1,700 to $1,900 cost of the intensive probation program is borne either by the offenders, their insurance company, or a combination thereof.

          According to Safe Streets Manager Phyllis Grubb, if a defendant is indigent and lacks medical coverage, the state or the county can help with the tab. There is one caveat, however. Each participant must pay the cost of the surveillance--some $560. "This covers the electronic monitoring, drug testing, and miscellaneous administrative costs on their own. We can work out a payment plan, but they have to be truly indigent not to pay this themselves," says Grubb. If the money is not forthcoming, she adds, the offender is jailed.

          North of the Twin Cities metro area, Judge James Dehn sits on the bench for the 10th District (encompassing eight counties) and is a past recipient of the National Criminal Justice Award from Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD). Dehn is the first judge ever to receive the award; his pre-trial electronic monitoring program is gaining national attention. Dehn says the program grew out of his frustration over the revolving door justice associated with drunk driving. "I had a guy in front of me who had three DWIs, and by the time his case got called into court, he had racked up numbers four and five," he recalls.

          Dehn decided the best way to prevent these drivers from repeat performances was to control their drinking. In 1992, he began to offer defendants the option of springing for a $12,000 bond (at an out-of-pocket cost of $1,200) or joining his program. Under Dehn's program, reoffenders awaiting trial--a period that can run up to six months--have an electronic monitor placed in their homes by a company called 180 Degrees. The monitor allows defendants to leave the house for work, but requires their presence at home three times a day. At the pre-arranged time, a defendant talks to company staffers via a video-phone terminal. "Video teleconferencing allows the parties to see one another," says Dehn. "This way we are certain that the person blowing the breath test is the defendant and not a friend or relative." The breathalyzer will allow for some margin of error: If a first attempt indicates minor alcohol use, such as the kind found when someone gargles with mouthwash, the defendant is re-tested within 15 minutes. Should he/she fail again, the company notifies the sheriff's department immediately and the drinker is taken to jail.

          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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