Wrong Turn

Think you can get away with drinking and driving? So did I.

The topic du jour is what to do with repeat offenders. Namely, how many DWIs should constitute a felony? Or, to put it in practical terms, what does it take to get chronic drinkers from behind the wheel?

"We've tried jail, and we've tried treatment, and we've tried jail and treatment," Mark McDonough offers. "I'm not sure that this is the way we will find a solution."

There are alternatives that may prove effective, according to Steve Simon--such as taking away license plates, impounding cars, and in-house arrest. "There's all kinds of ways that people want to prevent DWI," he notes.

There were 14,332 repeat offenders in Minnesota last year (just 4,000 fewer than the number of first-time arrests). It's a grim statistic, and both Simon and McDonough will sometimes resort to macabre humor as a way to cope with the reality that, for many repeat offenders and chronic drinkers, license revocation and jail time mean nothing. "You might have to amputate a foot and seal their mouths shut," Simon says with a dry chuckle.

In 1999, according to the Minnesota Department of Public Safety, nearly the same number of people were stopped for DWI in out-state Minnesota as were stopped in the Twin Cities metro. "In rural Minnesota, driving is essential," Simon notes. "And in most cases, the only place to congregate is in the local tavern."

"It's a revenue source for some cities, especially in rural areas," McDonough says. "I don't think they're saying, 'Troops, go out there and make us money.' But drunk driving is very prevalent out there. There's good money in this."

According to Simon, though, there still isn't enough money to properly deal with the problem: "The trouble is the legislature goes and passes all of these laws, but they don't explain to people how to pay for the criminal justice of it all. The police, the jails, the courts, the programs are all paid for, by and large, with city and county property taxes. Nobody can raise property taxes right now."

Ultimately, McDonough agrees that more resources are needed. He would like to see an emphasis on education and prevention, however. "We've got to start putting more money in the front end," he concludes.


OCTOBER 7, 2001

It's a little before 8:00 a.m. on a Sunday and there's a group of men sitting quietly on folding chairs in a gymnasium at the Anoka County Corrections Facility in Lino Lakes. It feels like I'm in church.

I sit in one of the middle rows and size up the 40-some DWI offenders who were sentenced to come here for a 48-hour stay. Most of them are white and middle class, and they're from suburban and rural Minnesota. I'm bouncing my legs up and down, something I never do, just trying to hurry everything up. It's a waste of energy.

"Okay, guys, I think I got everybody in here," says our supervisor, a thin man with a thick Minnesota accent who looks to have lived 45 very hard years. "My name's Rick, and I know none of you want to be here, and if any you want to go, just get up and go right now. In fact, you can go anytime you want during the next two days. But I'll have to write you down for violating your probation, and believe me, when they catch up with you, they're gonna put ya next door, in high security, for 30 days at least. So, I can't make you stay, but you make the choice, alright?"

Nobody flinches.

Rick points out that, as a recovering alcoholic, he's "had plenty of wild-ass times" and has more DWIs than most of us put together. "I'm not here to lecture you, or say that any of you are alcoholics, or that you need help," he says. This is not a treatment program: "It is a place where we're going to learn how to keep all of you from getting a DWI again, and maybe, in the process, we will all learn a bit about ourselves."

I like the guy and I decide that, although I'm scared as hell, I'm going to listen to what he has to say. He checks everyone in and goes through their bags looking for drugs, alcohol, and tobacco. He then makes sure we've all paid $105 for the program and gives everyone a Breathalyzer.

Later in the day we start watching the sort of "Just Say No" videotapes that rarely resonate with anyone anymore; they combine chilling footage of fatal accidents with testimonies from drunk-driving survivors. They work on me. So does the exercise where we take a real DWI case and decide the sentencing; each group dishes out a hard-nosed punishment.

As the day goes by, I study the faces in the group. In most cases, I see myself.


OCTOBER 8, 2001

It's just before lights out, and I'm thinking about a session when we drunk drivers each told the story of our arrest.

As I drift off to sleep, I think of the 21-year-old kid who was pulled over and blew a .30. He blacked out his entire arrest and he has the shakes all weekend. I think about the guy we all call Pops, a 70-year-old man who was pulled over after picking up his wife from the VFW and forgetting to turn his headlights on. And I think about the roofer from a northern suburb who has gotten into two drunken bar fights since his DWI, and admits, matter-of-fact, that he will probably drink and drive again.

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