Minnesota’s DWI court program focuses on eliminating repeat DWI/DUI offenses to protect Minnesotans from the dangers of drunk driving. Programs like this have been shown to effectively reduce recidivism and jail time for repeat offenders.
Currently, Minnesota has 16 DWI or hybrid DWI/drug courts with the two largest in Ramsey and Hennepin counties. Other courts are located primarily in rural counties; however, proponents—including DWI court judges—hope ongoing legislative funding will enable these specialty courts to expand across the state. According to Sixth Judicial District Chief Judge Shaun Floerike—who runs Duluth’s DWI court—having no DWI court options typically means an automatic trip to prison.
How DWI courts work
Briefly, DWI courts work to change the behavior of repeat DWI/DUI offenders with the threat of incarceration if they fail the diversion program. Treatment and frequent alcohol and drug testing are combined with constant contact with probation officers, behavioral therapists, driver’s license reinstatement programs. Participants are closely monitored by a judge who is part of a team comprised of prosecutors, defense attorneys, probation officers, therapists, and other criminal justice system actors. Graduation typically occurs after at least one year in the program.
DWI court populations differ from other drug courts. For example, whereas DWI courts have a higher percentage of white males who are employed with a higher education, drug court participants more commonly are unemployed and have been diagnosed with a mental health issue.
DWI courts save money, reduce recidivism
According to a 2014 report by the state’s Office of Traffic Safety that was funded by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), Minnesota saved over $1.4 million over two years when DWI offenders participated in DWI court-related programs. Not only do these courts save taxpayers money, they also reduce recidivism rates.
The study contained the largest pool of data sets ever examined in this context. Whereas two courts didn’t have adequate data, the other seven had at least four years’ worth of offender information.
The study demonstrated that the re-arrest rates for graduates of Minnesota’s DWI courts evaluated dropped dramatically when compared with offenders who went through traditional courts. Further, Minnesota’s overall graduation rates were also well above the national average.
The study also showed that the money saved by using DWI courts in lieu of traditional courts ranged from $1,694 to $11,386 per participant over two years. Other intangible savings include improved family and community relationships, greater public safety, decreases in healthcare expenses, and that DWI court participants continue to work and pay taxes.
Whereas these courts are voluntary, offenders must qualify in order to participate. The study underscored areas that could still improve such as rural transportation problems for participants, improving defense attorney involvement, and getting offenders into the program in a timely manner.
Possible funding cuts to DWI courts
Across the state, DWI courts are at risk for funding cuts. State legislators and Governor Mark Dayton have been at odds in agreeing on a budget for many of the state’s efforts, including DWI and other diversionary courts. In fact, Dayton has threatened to veto several measures if this impasse isn’t resolved soon.
Dayton has asked for $1.7 million annually to fund Minnesota’s specialty courts including DWI courts; however, the state legislature proposed a mere $100,000 according to a recent report published in Minnesota Lawyer. Dayton’s budget proposal fulfills the Minnesota Judicial Branch’s budget request for 2018-2019.
Minnesota Supreme Court speaks out
Minnesota Supreme Court Chief Justice Lorie Gildea argues that the legislature’s “failure to prioritize public safety and the justice system in this critical budget-setting process is deeply troubling” and that the proposed legislative budget would have “significant consequences” for the state’s justice system, primarily with respect to a shortage of judges amidst rising caseloads.
In Minnesota, the DWI court program has reduced recidivism nearly 70 percent. Additionally, program completion rates were well above the national average.