ELKHORN — As it reaches the end of its first decade, Walworth County’s OWI court is marking its success in a high completion and low recidivism rate.
Tuesday, Oct. 11, 2021, marks the 10-year anniversary of the program, a four-phase intervention for adults who have pled guilty to third or fourth Operating While under the Influence penalties (OWIs) and are struggling with sobriety.
The program arrives at this milestone with many notable successes behind it—to date, the OWI Court has 203 graduates and a recidivism rate of just 7%. Between 2020 and 2021, the program had 18 new admissions, 14 graduates, and a 90-percent completion rate.
For Alex, a 34-year-old from the Lake Geneva area, participating in the WCOC was an opportunity to start anew after years of drug- and alcohol-related run-ins with the law, according to a news release from the court.
“I knew I had a problem,” he says. “I knew I had to make life changes. And I had a lot to lose with the situation.” Now two-and-a-half years sober, Alex graduated from WCOC in 2020. He credits group therapy, a mandatory component of WCOC, as a big part of his success. “To be able to sit around with people of all ages and hear their experiences and share my experiences was really beneficial,” he says.
The WCOC’s mission is to reduce the number of alcohol-related traffic deaths and injuries in Walworth County, focus on the habitual problem of repeat OWIs, and reduce jail overcrowding. Given the statistics, its task is a critical one: The State of Wisconsin is the ninth highest state of drunken driving in the nation, with 159 drunk driving deaths in 2018 and 136 drunk driving deaths in 2019. According to the Wisconsin State Patrol, someone is injured or killed in an alcohol-related crash approximately every three hours.
“In Wisconsin, we see 6,000 alcohol-related crashes each year,” says Carlo Nevicosi, director, Walworth County Department of Health and Human Services. “We also have the United States’ largest percentage of binge drinkers. The personal and financial costs of this behavior to individuals, communities, and society are staggering. We chose to aggressively address the problem of drunk driving by eschewing the conventional response of escalating periods of incarceration.”
The WCOC tackles the social, economic, and behavioral factors at the root of repeat OWI offenses—factors that often go unaddressed when repeat offenders cycle back through the judicial system. Representatives from law enforcement, judicial agencies, educational institutions, and social-service organizations collaborate to provide controlled supervision and programs that support sobriety, mental health, and education.
“By all measures, OWI Court has been a huge success,” says Judge David Reddy, who was part of the team that helped organize the OWI Court. “In large part, this is due to the remarkable collaborative efforts of the team members. This community should be as proud of the program and the participants as I am. What started as an effort to reduce jail overcrowding has blossomed into a program that saves money and, more importantly, saves lives.”
Participants must apply to the program and meet certain eligibility criteria. The program requires frequent court appearances, random drug and alcohol testing, as well as group and/or individual counseling. The incentives to participate are many, including access to quality substance-abuse treatment; a large support system; the ability to complete their GEDs through a partnership with Gateway Technical College; reduced license revocations, fines, and jail sentences; and monetary savings.
Looking ahead, Walworth County recently applied for a treatment alternatives and diversion enhancement grant that, if awarded, would provide funding for court-required services as well as housing, transportation, and peer support.