By Ryan Ekvall | Wisconsin Reporter
MADISON – Drunken drivers are a menace to Wisconsin roadways, and two Republican lawmakers are leading the charge to pass stiffer penalties.
But the state’s top cop opposes a lot of what’s contained in the bills being pushed by state Rep. Jim Ott, R-Mequon, and Sen. Alberta Darling, R-River Hills, questioning the cost and effectiveness of the legislation.
“(It’s) not that I believe OWI (Operating While Intoxicated) isn’t a huge problem, not that I don’t believe that we need to do something about it, but because I know we have limited dollars and I want to use them in the most effective and efficient way possible,” Attorney General J.B. Van Hollen told reporters at a Treatment Alternatives and Diversion symposium in Madison on Friday.
The six proposed bills targeting drunken driving are projected to cost state taxpayers hundreds of millions of dollars a year in increased prison time, litigation and court bills. On one proposal alone the state Department of Corrections estimates an increased cost of $226 million in prison bed days and another $236 million for construction of new facilities.
“When you have unproven get-tougher-on-drunk-drivers legislation that costs a lot of money, it may not be the best way to reduce drunk driving or better protect the public if you can use that money in other categories. The reality is a lot of those dollars can be better spent on programs such as (OWI courts),” he said.
Ott has voiced skepticism about the fiscal estimate, calling it a “grave overestimate of the costs.” And the lawmakers, joining a chorus of supporters, say stricter penalties will save lives, something that fiscal estimates can’t adequately put a price on.
In the state budget, lawmakers passed $1 million in TAD funding grants for counties to use as they see fit – whether it’s an OWI court, a veteran’s court, drug court or other diversion program.
OWI courts are a type of treatment alternative and diversion program that have proven effective in counties that use them. The programs target repeat offenders who have alcohol abuse problems. According to the Department of Transportation, there are 9,670 third and fourth OWI convictions a year in the Badger State.
Participants in OWI courts still see jail time, but substantially less than what the law otherwise calls for. Participants undergo treatment, including cognitive behavioral therapy, appear regularly before a judge and are tested for alcohol consumption throughout the program.
Tough on crime
In 2009, former Democratic Gov. Jim Doyle signed a law providing tougher penalties for people convicted of OWI. That law made the fourth offense a felony instead of a misdemeanor. Ott has proposed to make a third offense a felony.
In 2009, former state Rep. Marlin Schneider, D-Wisconsin Rapids, was the lone dissenter in the statehouse, saying the bill would exacerbate crowding in jails, according to the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel.
“You may think this will be some wonderful thing, some wonderful bill that will solve the drinking problem,” Schneider told the newspaper. “This bill isn’t going to solve the problem.”
Alcohol-related crashes and deaths are down since the bill passed, but it continues a downward trend that started in 2007 – around the same time OWI courts started to appear. Going back further, alcohol-related crashes are down from nearly 14,000 a year in 1989 to roughly 9,000 in 2003 to 5,200 in 2011.
After La Crosse County implemented its OWI Treatment Court in 2006, repeat OWI convictions dropped 24 percent over the next three years – a substantial difference from similar-sized counties without treatment courts.
According to a 2009 assessment of the court’s first three years, the OWI Court saved La Crosse County 13,257 jail days. At $72 a day, the court saved taxpayers $954,504 dollars in jail days, according to the assessment.
Walworth County’s OWI court marks its two-year anniversary in October. According to Katie Behl, the OWI Court coordinator, nine people have graduated from the program and 40 are now enrolled.
“It has been very successful. It is working,” she said. “We’re following evidence-based practices that show time and time again these programs are effective. Typically the number we’re seeing is for every $1 spent in drug courts, it’s $3.36 savings in other areas compared to the traditional route.”
That includes savings from reduced jail bed days, health-care costs, foster care placements and reduced recidivism rates. Behl said those are estimates. She said a forthcoming evaluation of the program will provide harder numbers. The biggest impact, she says, is in the intangibles.
“Not only are (participants) getting help with substance abuse, they’re changing the way they approach their lives. Their lives are more stable, they’re seeking employment, repairing relationships. It’s kind of changing their entire lives,” she said.
Contact Ryan Ekvall at firstname.lastname@example.org or find him on Twitter @Nockian.