Door County Explores Alternative Sentencing for OWIs

When Scott Woldt took the bench as Winnebago County Branch 2 Circuit Court Judge six and a half years ago, it didn’t take him long to recognize the need for a new approach to deal with drunk drivers.

“I realized that 80 percent of the cases that come before me are drug and alcohol related,” he said. “It’s the definition of insanity, doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results. I couldn’t keep doing the same thing.”

Woldt pushed for the chance to try a different tactic than just using jail time as punishment, and in 2006 Winnebago County launched a trial program that gave the justice system more latitude in handling repeat OWI offenders. Woldt became the supervising judge for the county’s Safe Streets Treatment Options Program (SSTOP).

The program allows judges to use probation as a carrot to entice second and third-time OWI offenders to enter into a treatment program. Previously, judges could only do so after a 4th offense of drunk driving.

“Once they get to the fourth offense, haven’t we already lost them?” Woldt asked.

Now, repeat offenders in Winnebago County have the option of significantly cutting jail time in exchange for probation and a commitment to a treatment program, if the district attorney recommends them for the program.

After four years, recidivism rates among the 260 people who have successfully completed the program are down from about 40 percent to 9.7 percent, according to Mike Olig, case manager for SSTOP.

Now, Door County judges Peter Diltz and Todd Ehlers are pushing to institute a similar alternative sentencing court here. Conversations began about three years ago and are now regaining intensity thanks to new state-wide legislation that allows all courts the opportunity to follow Winnebago’s approach.

“It would be nice to have other options,” Diltz said of dealing with repeat offenders. “Everybody is different and there are different buttons to push. For some, the first time in court has such an impact that they’ll never offend again. With others it doesn’t matter what you do it doesn’t seem to work and they keep coming back.”

Under current practice, every OWI offender undergoes an alcohol assessment and must comply with recommendations from that assessment to get their license back. But offenders often don’t follow the recommendations, and they drive anyway.

“A lot of the people who get sentenced to prison for OWI don’t get any treatment,” he says. “You’d think that that would be the purpose.”

Alcoholics Anonymous and other programs are available in the jail, but they are all voluntary. Diltz said the system often focuses on the severity of punishment instead of public safety.

“It’s all about protecting the public,” Diltz said. “If at the end of a sentence we haven’t made the public safer, what’s the point?”

Getting the program started comes down to money. The cost comes in the form of an addiction specialist who would recommend appropriate treatment for offenders and monitor their progress. The county doesn’t currently employ someone who could fill that roll, and hiring someone would cost about $40,000 a year.

With budgets tight and governments coming under intense pressure to cut, it’s not going to be easy to find dollars for the program. That’s why Pastor Michael Brecke has begun working to raise community dollars to fund the first year.

“If we can get the money for the first year to get it functioning, I think we can get it through the county board in the future,” Brecke said.

But there are cost savings inherent in such programs as well. Fewer nights spent in jail saves money, and in Winnebago, Woldt said he doles out enough community service hours each year to offset the cost of the coordinator. But there are greater savings that are more difficult to measure.

“[Offenders] keep their license, and because of that it’s easier for them to get a job, to be responsible to their family, to contribute to society,” Woldt said. “It gives them less opportunity to drink, to create family problems, for their kids to slip off the track. And their kids don’t end up in the justice system down the road.”

Since the program started, Winnebago County has seen the number of people cited for driving after revocation drop from 50 per week to 30.

“I want to try new things and be innovative,” Woldt said. “There are a lot of repeat customers in the system. If we try something and it doesn’t work I’m willing to dump it, but I want to try.”

Diltz said a Door County program might begin with third offense OWI, because that’s when jail sentences get longer and there’s more incentive for offenders to enter the program.

Door County Sheriff Terry Vogel said he’s in favor of looking into the idea, but with guarded enthusiasm. “I’m sure the judges want more flexibility,” he said. “But if you don’t have a solid foundation for the programs you could have problems. My philosophy is, if the judge tells me to lock them up, I lock them up.”

David Hobler is a California attorney with Door County ties. He has made the case to Door County officials about the merits of an alternative sentencing court, and has pushed for the program in communities around the country.

“From 30 years of working on this, I know we can help people,” he said.

Hobler is a recovering alcoholic himself who has been sober for 18 years. He said that locking people up isn’t getting the message across.

“We’ve been locking them up for years and years, but people keep coming back,” he said. “They go right to a tavern the day they get out and celebrate getting out of jail. This is not anything that punishment can cure. Finally, the justice system is recognizing this.“

The judges will meet again to discuss the alternative sentencing court with officials from community programs, the district attorney, and other county departments Aug. 23.