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DWI Courts: A holistic approach to safer roads

Aug. 31, 2017

DWI court graduate Janet Carlson speaks at a news conference.
​Photo: Janet Carlson was arrested three times in three years for driving drunk. “I believe DWI Court saved my life,” she says.

We know: You’re a safe, responsible driver. But that’s not all it takes to stay safe on the road. You could be cruising down the highway, seat belt firmly buckled, obeying the speed limit – but what about that drunk driver coming toward you? The sad part is, this may not be the first time that person has driven under the influence – they may even have prior convictions.
In fact, 41 percent of drivers with DWI arrests in 2015 had at least one prior drunk driving conviction. And there are currently almost 266,000 Minnesota drivers with more than one DWI on their record.
Fortunately, Minnesota's DWI Court program is here to prevent just such occurrences. The program focuses on eliminating repeat DWI offenses. Simply put, it brings the criminal justice system together with drug and alcohol treatment, which turns out to be an effective way to reduce DWI rearrests. In fact, an evaluation of Minnesota’s DWI Court program showed that it reduced recidivism up to 69 percent.
Janet Carlson credits DWI Court for saving her life. She was arrested for DWI three times in three years – and the last one happened after she hit another vehicle. She was a prime candidate for DWI Court and graduated in 2013. “I and I alone made the decision to repeatedly get behind the wheel of a car while drunk. DWI Court gave me not only hope, but support and accountability. Most importantly, it gave me a supportive, sober community and an opportunity to repay a debt by getting the message out there to stop the potentially deadly choice to drink and drive.”
Here’s how it works: If a driver pleads guilty to or is convicted of a DWI, they can choose to enter the program. Throughout the program, the offender receives frequent judicial court reviews and intensive probation supervision from a multidisciplinary team of professionals led by the DWI Court judge. Completing and graduating from the program results in an early discharge from probation.
Details vary between DWI Courts, but the general structure is the same. The Hennepin County DWI Court program, for example, lasts a minimum of 18 months, during which participants:
  • Attend at least three recovery support groups per week.
  • Adhere to a treatment plan.
  • Meet with probation officers as directed.
  • Submit to random drug and alcohol testing as directed.
  • Adhere to a curfew.
  • Submit to random, unannounced home checks by law enforcement.
  • Complete a victim impact panel.
  • Maintain employment/education/training.

A result of this and other intensive efforts to curb drunk driving (such as the enhanced DWI enforcement happening all over Minnesota now through Sept. 3) is that DWI arrests are in steady decline. In 2007, for example, law enforcement arrested 38,763 drunk drivers, compared to 23,392 in 2016. (Of course, even one is too many, which is why we’ll keep working.)

So keep that seat belt buckled, keep obeying the speed limit and doing all the other things you do to drive safely, knowing that the DWI Court program is working every day to keep the roads you travel as safe as possible.