Sobering Roads

A grant will help Door County fund a new tactic in the fight to reduce its number of repeat drunk drivers.

The county has accepted a Wisconsin Intoxicated Driver Program Enhancement grant that could provide up to $50,000 for the county to contract with a case manager to offer an alternative sentencing program for repeat drunk driving offenders. In 2010 the Wisconsin Legislature passed Act 100, which allows counties to institute alternative sentencing programs that trade jail days for enhanced treatment and supervision.

The county’s Department of Community Programs, which works with people struggling with alcohol and drug abuse, now has a new way to keep people out of the court system.

“We’ve found that locking up repeat offenders does not serve as much of a deterrent,” said Tina Baeten, the Behavioral Health Coordinator for the Door County Department of Community Programs.

The Wisconsin Department of Transportation recorded 33,796 drunk driving convictions in 2010, 13,656 of which were for second offense or higher. Community Programs performed assessments on 148 Door County residents who were convicted of a second offense or higher for drunk driving last year.

Until Act 100 was passed the only tool at a judge’s disposal in dealing with drunk drivers was a jail sentence. An offender could voluntarily attend Alcoholics Anonymous meetings in the jail, but a judge couldn’t sentence a drunk driver to treatment. The program allows judges to use probation as a carrot to entice second and third-time drunk driving offenders to enter into a treatment program. That carrot can include a 50 percent reduction in jail time if the offender voluntarily agrees to treatment with a case manager, drug screenings, follow-ups with judges and a longer probation period.

Previously, judges could only do so after a fourth offense of drunk driving.

A similar program in Winnebago County has been shown to reduce recidivism rates from 40 percent to under 10 percent in its first four years.

Community Programs Director Joe Krebsbach believes the alternative sentencing program will make for safer streets but could also end up saving the county money.

“Judges will work with us and parole officers to provide an alternative to what we have been doing, which is strictly incarceration,” Krebsbach said. “Throwing them into jail is clearly not working. The hope is that the program will reduce jail bed days and recidivism and get people into treatment quicker.”

When a driver is arrested for driving drunk they are supposed to get an alcohol assessment from Community Programs within 72 hours. They must complete the assessment and comply with its recommendations to get their license back; but many do not comply because they don’t want to pay the $225 assessment fee, and they drive without a license.

As a result, many drunk drivers never get even a basic level of treatment.

The alternative sentencing program will be running by December, Krebsbach said, but he stressed that it is only a small part in the effort to combat drunk driving.

“We should be doing more prevention and education up front,” he said. “It’s really about changing the culture and what we consider acceptable drinking in this state.”