Real solutions to drunken driving

The following Op Ed by Rev. Ellwanger appeared in the
January 17 Milwaukee Journal Sentinel.

Posted: Jan. 16, 2010

The sanity and responsibility team has finally earned a first down in the campaign against drunken driving in Wisconsin. You might even say that after punting away opportunities for years, sanity and responsibility have the ball and have crossed midfield.

Thanks to community organizing efforts and energetic journalism, Wisconsin is emerging from its deep denial about our drinking and driving problem. At last, there has been some action by our leaders, and we are engaged in a robust dialogue and an active campaign to find solutions to the death-dealing problem.

The recent OWI legislation contains elements of real solutions. Interlock devices for repeat offenders will help impose some self-discipline. The slight increase in penalties for certain infractions will have a very limited impact on the overall crisis. The sleeper in the legislation that could have the greatest impact on bringing down the number of drunken drivers on the road is the potential expansion of a Winnebago County SSTOP (Safe Streets Treatment Option Program) program to the other 71 Wisconsin counties.

The SSTOP program gives second- and third-time OWI offenders the opportunity to opt for treatment in lieu of jail time. In Winnebago County, 90% of the second- and third-time offenders opted for the program and 75% completed it successfully. Quality treatment programs with accountability are much more likely than incarceration to change behavior.

For example, after La Crosse County initiated an OWI Treatment Court for second- and third-time offenders, the overall OWI arrest rate dropped by 24%, even as arrest rates in surrounding counties increased. Without skilled intervention, the disease continues unabated, the coma of denial persists and the pattern of drunken driving continues.

The 2009 OWI legislation gives Wisconsin counties permission to establish SSTOP programs. Now, counties need to take advantage of the opportunity. Like Winnebago County, they could save themselves thousands of dollars by reducing jail days.

More important, they could actually reduce drunken driving, and improve the safety of everyone. They must provide people a treatment program with the threat of incarceration looming in the background for participants who do not take the treatment seriously.

So what do we need to do to help to move the ball farther down the field?

Get every county in the state to actualize a SSTOP program or an OWI • treatment court for second- and third-time OWI offenders.

Make first-time OWI a misdemeanor - with the offer of expungement, if • offenders remain free of an OWI arrest for five years, with incentives to move first-time OWI offenders into treatment if assessment indicates such a need.

Increase Wisconsin's anachronistically low beer tax and dedicate the • increased revenue to treatment costs for participants in OWI and TAD (Treatment Alternatives and Diversion) treatment programs, as well as additional law enforcement/judicial costs.

We dare not quit the game when the goal line is in sight. This is a game we cannot afford to lose. The momentum is in our favor, and this is the time to move forward with real solutions that can make a difference.

The Rev. Joseph Ellwanger is coordinator of the WISDOM Treatment Instead of Prison (TIP) Campaign. WISDOM consists of 140 congregations, of 17 different religious denominations, from around Wisconsin, united to work for justice and the common good.