Responding to dangerous addictions
Under Wisconsin law, a person convicted of operating while intoxicated (OWI) cannot be placed on probation until their fourth offense.
This means that courts cannot effectively order ongoing treatment for alcohol abuse and authorities cannot supervise the behavior of second- or third-time offenders once they have served their jail time.
In 2007, Winnebago County received special permission from the state to launch the Safe Streets Treatment Options Program (SSTOP).
Under SSTOP, some second- or third-time offenders are given a choice to either serve out their full jail sentence or spend less time in jail and be placed on probation for one year of intense supervision. The Winnebago County program was put together by a team that included county board members, judges, law enforcement and social workers.
More than 700 offenders have been referred to SSTOP, and about 450 have successfully completed Winnebago County’s program in its first five years.
A study by Winnebago County’s SSTOP team found an 11 percent recidivism rate among OWI offenders who completed SSTOP. Statewide, the recidivism rate is nearly 54 percent, according to the Wisconsin Sentencing Commission.
The state subsequently opened the program for other counties to implement.
Late last year, Waupaca County courts introduced SSTOP as an alternative to jail for second- and third-time OWI offenders.
If an offender agrees to participate in SSTOP, his jail time can be reduced significantly.
For example, a second-time OWI offender with a 0.2 blood-alcohol level faces between 50 and 70 days in jail. Under SSTOP, the judge will stay 35 to 45 days of the sentence.
In exchange, the offender agrees to participate in one year of treatment and counseling.
Ron Pehlke is a clinical substance abuse counselor for the Waupaca County Department of Health and Human Services. He also works with OWI offenders who participate in SSTOP. He is currently working with 14 offenders.
Participation in SSTOP is voluntary and requires that the prosecutor, the judge and the counselor all agree that an individual qualifies for the program.
“Before an individual is convicted, they meet with me and we talk about the program and get a feel for their potential for success,” Pehlke said.
Pehlke said one of the keys to successful participation is the ability to follow the directions offered by counselors.
Pehlke noted that without SSTOP, repeat offenders often avoid going to their court-ordered alcohol or drug abuse assessment (AODA).
“We see people come in for their AODA three years after their conviction because they were caught driving after revocation,” Pehlke said.
He said the possibility of being returned to jail to serve the remainder of the stayed sentence acts as a motivating factor for SSTOP participants.
“I often get second offenders and the jail time they’re facing is very steep,” Pehlke said. “They never envisioned themselves sitting in jail.”
A typical AODA lasts about two hours. The counselor examines an offender’s personal history, employment and prior convictions.
Pehlke also speaks with an offender’s family members.
“They need to bring a spouse, an adult child or another family member that’s close to them to talk with us about this person’s use of alcohol,” Pehlke said. “If there is some type of problem, we often find that family member has been waiting for an opportunity to talk to someone about it.”
Pehlke puts together a treatment plan for each individual offender. The plan may include in-depth treatment and ongoing counseling.
“Most treatment programs will have a person come in to group counseling two days a week for six weeks,” Pehlke said. There will also be one-on-one counseling sessions about once per week for eight week.
After counseling, the offender begins making monthly reports to Pehlke.
Among the requirements, a participant must totally abstain from alcohol for the entire year they are in SSTOP.
Another tool that Pehlke can use is a drug called Antabuse, which causes a severe reaction if alcohol is consumed while on the medication.
“It’s a good drug for those who need the support,” Pehlke said, adding that for the medication to work the offender must be willing to stop drinking.
Pehlke described a client who was required to go to a physician’s office every day in order to ensure that he took the medication.
“He started drinking very small amounts of alcohol, about a teaspoon, until he worked up to the ability to drink a couple of shots,” Pehlke said. “It goes to prove how deep set some addictions are.”
Pehlke sees between 350 and 400 offenders each year in Waupaca County. He believes that SSTOP may prove effective in deterring repeat OWI offenders.
“People who have been on the program the longest seem to sit up and pay attention this time because they know there are serious consequences if they mess up,” Pehlke said, noting that intensive community supervision for a year does “not allow that last OWI to fade from their memory. It gives them time to make changes to their lifestyle that can become permanent.”