Intervention needed for drunk drivers

Katie Knox

*Names have been changed to protect the identity of those involved. The Varsity Club is crammed for a Tuesday night–Specials include $2.50 double rail mix drinks and $2 tap beers—cheap for college students looking for a quick buzz. At the end of the bar away from jukeboxes blaring ‘90s music and pool balls clacking is Lisa Smith*. She’s sitting straight up in the bar stool, legs crossed under the bar and short, bony fingers wrapped around a medium-sized glass filled with knock-off UV Blue and Mountain Dew. “I’m just going to sip my drink tonight so I don’t drink it too fast,” Smith, a third-time DUI offender, said as she plays with the small black straw, stirring the ice. “I don’t like to drink a lot anymore because it would get me in trouble in the past.” The 26-year-old Oshkosh resident spends her time trying to rebuild her life, including working her way up the lines of Silver Star Brands as an order processing specialist. Knowing she wouldn’t get her license back until 2017, Smith sold her car shortly after her third offense and continues to use the buses to travel around the area. “The bus gets me to work a few minutes before I start,” she explains. “It’s a loss of freedom because I can’t just get up and go anywhere, especially on Sundays.” Smith fumbles with the cardboard coaster against the shellacked, honey oak bar, chatting away without taking a breath. She stares at her drink, explaining how she should technically have four DUIs because the police lost the paperwork for her first. “The fines aren’t that bad,” Smith said, laying a $5 bill on the bar, ordering a second drink. “It’s the court costs that get you.” Winnebago County Circuit Court Judge Thomas Gritton has been on the bench for 16 years and spent another 10 representing people in the court of law prior. During his time presenting his cases and presiding over the courtroom, Gritton says drunk driving is one of the more prevalent cases in the state of Wisconsin. According to the fourth judicial district OWI sentencing guidelines, the third offense can be up to 100 days in jail, and a fine of $2,400 depending on the blood alcohol content level. Among the consequences, those guilty can also face 33 months of an installed interlock device on vehicles and license revocation, an alcohol assessment and two years of probation. The total fines and costs of a third-offense DUI can be up to $4,026. “We’re the only state in the nation where the first offense is not criminal, and I think that says something,” Gritton said. The costs for DUIs can be broken into different categories. The fourth judicial district sentencing guidelines ask for a driver surcharge, court costs, a jail surcharge, justice information, court support, crime lab fees, a penalty surcharge and a safe ride program fee. Depending on the blood alcohol content and the number of offenses, the defendant may also pay for an interlock system, a DNA test and victim-witness costs. Within those sentencing costs, the judges factor in the ability for the defendant to pay, the blood alcohol level, the conduct of defendant since the offense, the consequences of the offense to the defendant and victims, and the cooperation, driving and record of the defendant. Within each category, there are also separate guidelines for non-aggravated (no harm) and aggravated (crashes or fatalities) charges. “There needs to be money set aside, and the problem is there’s no really easy way for the [Legislature] to give the money,” Gritton said. “There’s no easy way for them to justify giving the money because there’s no easy way to figure out how productive that’s being to put somebody into those programs. So they don’t do that. Really this system becomes more and more about money all the time.” Smith pays $100 per month toward her court bill balance of $1,853.25, but still falls behind. The jail has ordered Smith to not miss payments on more than two consecutive months otherwise a warrant will be issued for her arrest. “I’ve been late on payments for this last month,” Smith said, staring at her drink as the condensation drips down the glass. Although the plea agreement in her third DUI ordered her to comply with the conditions of the 24/7 program, which keeps defendants and participants sober while their case works its way through the system, the court settled with Safe Streets Treatment Options Program, or SSTOP. SSTOP began in May 2006 as a pilot program for second and third-time DUI offenders in the Winnebago County area. It’s a probation and treatment program that allows those convicted to choose treatment, community service and other requirements over jail time. Gritton said there are many programs available to those who need it, such as the Earned Release Program, an intensive and lengthy program that includes education on alcohol and drugs for inmates, or the Challenge Incarceration Program, which is a boot camp that engages inmates in physical exercise, military drills, personal development counseling with education on alcohol and other substance abuse and release preparation. “The [Safe Streets Initiative] of the state that is located here in Winnebago County is one of the best programs out there,” Gritton said. “There are a lot of people who have been successful with that program, but it’s only for people who have been imprisoned, not in jail.” Although, after seven, or even 13 DUI offenses, Gritton is at a loss for what else to do other than fines and jail time. “I’ve had a 13th offense, and it doesn’t take a lot of wisdom to find out that you’ll max that guy out,” Gritton said quietly. “After 13 DUIs in less than 10 years,” Gritton paused from making direct eye contact and looked down at the papers on his desk, “there’s not much you can do with that person, unfortunately.” Deputy Eggers of Winnebago County has worked in law enforcement for almost 18 years. Eggers said a fifth offense isn’t unusual to her anymore and agrees with Gritton that those in the 13 and above range of offenses are alcoholics who need treatment. “The interlock ignition works to an extent, but it won’t stop them from driving other vehicles,” Eggers said. According to the US Department of Health and Human Services survey, 26 percent of adults in Wisconsin in 2009 admitted to drinking and driving. In 2012, there were 223 alcohol-related deaths from crashes and approximately 3,000 injured. 36 percent of fatal traffic crashes in 2012 were alcohol-related, according to the Wisconsin DOT. The legal limit in Wisconsin for blood alcohol content is 0.08 percent, a limit that many exceed. The sentencing guidelines for the fourth judicial district have the prohibited alcohol concentration listed from below 0.12 percent, up to 0.25 percent and over. From a blood alcohol content of just 0.02 percent, people may experience that buzzed feeling that the state advertises is still considered drunk driving. “You feel mildly relaxed and maybe a little lightheaded,” the Phoenix House Organization’s Facts on Tap chart states. “Your inhibitions are slightly loosened, and whatever mood you were in before you started drinking may be mildly intensified.” From there, the effects continue to the point where at a 0.35 percent blood alcohol content level, the chance of breathing cessation is likely. Gritton explained that although he is not part of the Legislature, he would like to see change in the Wisconsin laws as he has not seen improvement with his cases with only license revocation. His suggestion would be to add on an intervention treatment program when a person has their first or second offense, not the fifth or sixth, so that the addiction is caught early. “I used to go out to the drug correctional facility and talk to the people before they’re released, and explained to them their time on parole,” Gritton said. “I would always ask them, ‘If you were sitting in someone else’s place, what would you do to someone who is sitting where you are now?’ Across the board, it’s, ‘I should have been hit harder, earlier.’” The system and idea isn’t quite that simple, according to Gritton. The courts only see between five and 10 minutes of each case, which doesn’t leave judges enough time to understand what each person needs, whether it’s treatment, license revocation or jail. “Or the bigger issue is there’s not a lot we can do with them because there isn’t a treatment option available or they don’t have the insurance for treatment options, and so we’re recycling these people,” Gritton expressed, almost exasperated. “We’re not changing a behavior or thought process. We’re recycling them.” Gritton is not the only one who is concerned with insurance for treatment, but Smith is as well. Between her work history of attendance issues, her cat and the lack of insurance, she was unable to keep up with the DNA test costs that was part of her in-patient therapy. From there, she switched programs to keep it cost effective and easy for her to go to work. However, it was suggested that she go to Alcoholics Anonymous meetings held in Oshkosh and Smith declined the offer. Smith explains the times for the meetings didn’t work for her, but she will continue her outpatient treatment at SSTOP. “I have no time for AA, but I’m not the alcoholic they’re making me out to be,” she said, alone at the bar with a drink in her hand.