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DWI Courts: A long-term solution to the drunk driving problem

Nov. 5, 2020

A woman taking notes while talking to a man


If you had a leak in your roof, you might put a bucket underneath it to catch the dripping water. But you certainly wouldn’t call it “fixed.” That would only happen when you actually patch the roof. Until you solved the underlying problem, you’d need a bucket every time it rained – and that’s not an ideal scenario.

Addressing the problem of drunk driving in Minnesota poses similar issues. Yes, it’s very important for law enforcement to arrest impaired drivers, with the accompanying fines and sometimes jail time. It helps keep Minnesotans safer by removing the immediate threat of drunk driving from the roads. Unfortunately, those drivers can – and often do – drive under the influence again.

Minnesota’s DWI Courts are the roof patch in this scenario: The more long-term solution to the problem. And one such court, in St. Louis County, is starting as early as possible. They’ve started a program called SBIRT – that’s screening, brief intervention, and referral to treatment – with first-time offenders. The idea is to identify problems as soon as possible so that participants can avoid becoming repeat DWI offenders.

If offenders show signs that their drunk driving behaviors are going to continue, the program provides intensive probation and a holistic intervention approach to resolve a deeper issue. Participants have to take multiple blood-alcohol tests every week, and they have daily contact with their probation officer (for comparison, offenders who aren’t in this program may connect with their probation officer only a handful of times in a year). The DWI court team provides mental health and chemical dependency services, and they help them get their lives back. Offenders get help finding housing and employment, and mental health providers help them reestablish relationships with family members. This can help provide a much-needed support system. In short, they’re getting rid of the bucket and fixing the roof instead.

Although the SBIRT program sounds great, it’s important to have empirical evidence it works. So far, participants in the St. Louis County program are down to 11 percent recidivism, compared to 40 percent in the rest of the state. But St. Louis County wanted to know more, and a grant from the Governors Highway Safety Administration (GHSA) and Foundation for Advancing Alcohol Responsibility (Responsibility.org) is providing the perfect opportunity to study the program’s effectiveness.

The Minnesota Department of Public Safety Office of Traffic Safety (OTS) applied for and received the $35,000 GHSA/Responsibility.org grant on St. Louis County’s behalf, who will combine it with money from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration and some of their own funds to conduct the evaluation.

The money pays for interns, who interview and follow up with the program participants. It also covers a recovery specialist, who oversees the interns, and an organization called NPC Consulting, which conducts the actual evaluation. This involves site visits, staff interviews, observation of the process, a comparison group, outcome evaluations, and a cost evaluation.

If the evaluation finds that the St. Louis County DWI court SBIRT program is effective, OTS will begin helping the state’s other 16 DWI courts implement those same methods to re-create the St. Louis County program’s success in their own communities. It’s possible that this grant and the evaluation it funds just might be the long-term solution to the drunk driving problem: It could help fix the roof.