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Treatment sentences another arrow in judges' quiver

Rehabilitation could work better than jail, judge

Mike Heine/The Week

(Published April 19, 2007, 3:24 p.m.)

Thinking of drinking and driving in Walworth County? Think again.

Court officials are working with the county's health and human services department that would make sentences for drunk driving offenses more stiff, but more focused on rehabilitation.

Chief Judge Michael Gibbs said offenders could avoid lengthy prison sentences by completing a series of requirements that could include regular alcohol tests, making all counseling and rehabilitation sessions, performing community service and more. Failing to meet the requirements would send the offender straight to jail.

"The whole idea is to reduce the jail population," Gibbs said. "It's a savings to the county and at the same time, it will help these people get to the point where they're not going to re-offend."

The county's criminal justice coordinating committee had originally looked at having a stand-alone drug and alcohol treatment court. That plan was scuttled.

Judges are already stretched for time--a state study recommended two additional circuit court judges here--and federal grant monies for a stand-alone court would put outside controls on the program that insiders would know most about, Gibbs said.

"I don't like the idea of having a new federal master operating the Walworth County court system," Gibbs said.

Judges could work the alternative sentences into standard court hearings. Gibbs called it another arrow in a judge's quiver of options.

Putting it simply, "Get with the program or your going to jail," Gibbs said.

"It's breaking the traditional method," of routinely sentencing drunk drivers to jail or the Huber Dorm, Gibbs said. "It's not a new (idea). It's three or four years old. But we want to look at something newer and cheaper than (a stand-alone treatment court) that is hopefully as effective or more effective."

The health and human services department has the programs and the staff to carry out a judge's sentence and monitor an offender's compliance with the sentence.

Dr. David Thompson, deputy director for health and human services, sees the benefits of developing such a program.

"OWI (operating while intoxicated) and repeat OWI's are a very important issue," he said. "I think it's a significant issue that needs to be addressed. Our department is very interested in being involved in that."

Thompson is in the process of developing a list of treatment programs for individuals with alcohol problems. Officials are targeting Aug. 1 to have the programs in place.

"We're finding approaches that have a combination of abstinence and also teaching people different skills and teaching them how to meet their needs in other ways other than with alcohol," Thompson said. "The surveillance component is also important."

There will be those who will fail to meet the sentencing orders and find themselves back in jail, Thompson said. The program intends, though, to focus on people interested in keeping a relatively normal life outside of jail while getting help with a dangerous problem.

"I think it's the costs of incarceration vs. the cost of prevention. Prevention is the more economical way to go if we can keep people safe, which is what we're trying to do here," Thompson said.

District Attorney Phil Koss has some skepticism backs the idea.

"We want to see what kind of program human services can develop. We can't have a one-size-fits-all kind of program," Koss said. "We'll cooperate. I think, in theory, it is a very good idea, but I'm keeping all options open."

He added, "We're all for people not re-offending. I don't care if that's by jail or some other way. I don't want them to re-offend."



By the numbers

-- The Walworth County Health and Human Services Department conducted 766 drunk driving assessments in both 2005 and 2006.

-- There were 186 alcohol-related vehicle crashes in Walworth County in 2005, according to 2005 Wisconsin Department of Transportation figures. Fifteen people died in those crashes and 92 people were injured.


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