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Noting $700K in taxpayer savings, Minnesota adds more DWI courts

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A court treatment program that state officials say saves money and is effective at reducing re-arrest rates expanded to northwest Minnesota with the start of the new year.

Norman, Polk and Red Lake counties each are home to DWI courts now, the Minnesota Judicial Branch said – bringing the total number of such courts in the state to 13.

Here's a look at what a DWI court is, and why officials are touting its effectiveness compared to a traditional jail or prison sentence.

What is a DWI court?

The DWI courts are actually one piece of the overarching drug courts program in Minnesota.

The drug courts – of which there are 50 total in the state, including the DWI-focused ones – are aimed at fixing the addiction that led to the drug-related offense, the website says.

That same philosophy applies to the DWI courts.

The purpose of a DWI court is to "address the root cause" of impaired driving, by combining supervision for the offender with counseling, treatment and other services. The supervision includes court appearances and random drug testing.

The target group is nonviolent DWI offenders who have multiple DWI violations and addictions to alcohol or other drugs – people who are considered the most likely to re-offend.

So, do they work?

These types of drug courts are often given credit for having two effects.

First, they appear to reduce the likelihood that an offender will get in similar trouble with the law again (known as recidivism). Second, because those people are less likely to commit a crime, it ends up saving the criminal justice system money.

The Minnesota Judicial Branch had a national group do an evaluation of nine of the state's DWI courts. It found:

  • Six of the seven programs included in the cost analysis part of the study saved money – anywhere from about $1,700 to $11,300 per person.
  • Graduates of eight of the programs had lower re-arrest rates than those who didn't go through a DWI court.
  • Participants at six of the programs – whether they graduated or not – had a lower re-arrest rate.
  • In total, the courts saved Minnesota taxpayers $700,000 a year.

Those findings are in line with a number of national examinations of drug courts, including ones from the National Institute of Justice, the Bureau of Justice Assistance, the state of Georgia, the Center for Court Innovation, the Sentencing Project, and others.

As of 2010, there were more than 2,500 drug courts operating nationwide.

The three new DWI courts in Minnesota are being funded by a $300,000 grant from the Minnesota Office of Traffic Safety.

Meanwhile, a state DWI task force is asking lawmakers for tougher penalties for offenders, the Star Tribune reports, in hopes of encouraging more people to install a breathalyzer in their vehicle.

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