Judges Weigh In on Drunk Driving

How do we stop drunk driving? That question is the subject of news articles and editorials across the state.  It is also the subject of committee hearings and much debate in Madison. The Wisconsin Assembly recently passed a bill addressing drunk driving and the State Senate is expected to take up the legislation by the end of the month. During this process many citizens are weighing in on the issue.

Recently I had the opportunity to meet with several judges who shared their perspective and research on the issue of drunk driving. Their expertise and experience was very valuable because they see both the success and the failure of a justice system that must deal with the underlying causes of drunk driving and the often tragic consequences.

“Putting any one in jail has an adverse affect,” one of the judges told me. “Lengthy jail or prison sentences are not an effective way to treat alcoholism.”

Based on their research and experience, the judges affirmed that; “Our jails and prisons are already over crowded and the populations continue to grow. Increased jail time and enhancing penalties will result in increased incarceration costs. It’s more cost effective to treat people in the community where they maintain themselves and their families and receive more effective and appropriate treatment.”

The judges told me most drunk drivers do not believe they will be caught so increased penalties are not the most effective deterrent. Their research showed that while Wisconsin led the nation in the number of OWI arrests, there was not a corresponding decrease in drunk driving.

So my question back to them was, “What really works?”

The judges pointed to the success of drug- and alcohol-treatment courts which are available in several Wisconsin counties, including Monroe, Trempealeau, Jackson, Pierce, Eau Claire. 

A drug court’s mission is to “increase community safety and restore sober, productive, and law-abiding citizens to the community by breaking the cycle of drug and alcohol addiction through effective, long-term treatment with intensive court supervision.”

The drug court brings together various agencies that ensure an offender is held accountable for their actions but also receives the necessary treatment to change their behavior.  The first graduate of the Eau Claire County drug court has remained sober since November 2004 and is now mentoring other participants. 

According to a 2007 Michigan Supreme Court study offenders sentenced to traditional probation were 19 times more likely to be re-arrested for drunk driving than a drug court participant.

I also learned the average annual cost per participant in the drug court is $7,535 and that includes all testing, treatment, and services for felony offenders.  Compare that with the cost to taxpayers of incarcerating a single drunk driver for one year in a Wisconsin prison - $28,000; in a county jail - $14,000. The cost for probation supervision for a year was six to eight thousand dollars. 

Another idea the judges shared was a “Day Reporting Center”; a place where offenders have to check in everyday or they are sent to jail.  “We need a place where people check in every day,” one judge said. “We do a blood alcohol or urine test and know they are clean. They know we are keeping an eye on them.” Unfortunately the judge noted it is difficult to get funding for such a program.

The judges also stressed the need for better assessment of a person arrested for drunk driving.  “We need better assessment – are we dealing with someone who made a mistake or someone who is an alcoholic? We need to require people to get treatment and we need to make sure, if they need treatment, they can get it.”

I came away from the meeting recognizing that when we treat drunk driving as a crime where addiction is too often the cause, we can be successful by providing an offender appropriate treatment along with suitable penalties.

But we must also work to change the culture of drinking and driving.  In the words of Jason Barber, a former drunk driver, “Drunk driving is not an accident – it is a choice.”  We must do all we can to help people make the right choice.