For 25 years, Mike Blair drank "from sunup to sundown" nearly every day. He didn't find a way out until his fourth drunken driving arrest, in 2006.
Blair was sitting in a Ramsey County jail cell when he was offered a choice: He could spend another six months in jail and lose his license for a year, or he could enroll in DWI Court, an intense program aimed at changing the behavior of drunken drivers.
It was a risky proposition. Blair would have to remain sober for at least 13 months and live under almost constant supervision. If he quit, he faced a year in jail. But if he followed through, he could get by with just 17 days of community service -- chores like picking up garbage on the street.
"This seemed like a better alternative to what I was doing. ... They saved my life," said Blair, 54.
The problem of dealing with repeat offenders has frustrated prosecutors for decades, but two Minnesota counties -- Anoka and Ramsey -- are finding it is often more productive to focus on the drinking habits that cause trouble on the road.
Among counties with populations of at least 100,000, Anoka and Ramsey posted the largest declines in alcohol-related crashes from 2000 to 2008, according to a Star Tribune analysis. Over that period, the number of alcohol-related crashes dropped from 697 to 429 in Ramsey, while Anoka had 100 fewer crashes.
In recent years, both counties also developed task forces that deploy saturation patrols in specific neighborhoods.
"Everybody knows if you get a DWI in Anoka County, the courts are going to hammer you," said Sharon Gehrman-Driscoll, a longtime DWI victims advocate. "Whatever they've done to put the fear of God in people, it's working."
More than treatment
Anoka County began the state's first intensive program aimed at repeat offenders in 1987. The voluntary program, which mirrors DWI Court, is for drivers with at least three DWIs and takes at least six months to finish. It was created to reduce recidivism by providing treatment, at-home alcohol testing and frequent contact with probation officers.
A key to its success is the threat of an extended jail sentence if offenders fail, said Jerry Soma, who oversees Anoka County's human services.
Jason Sandstrom was facing eight years in prison if he failed to complete Anoka's repeat offender program. Sandstrom signed up in 2007, after racking up his fifth DWI in six years while nearly broadsiding a squad car. It was Sandstrom's second accident in just a few weeks. In the previous crash, he blacked out while driving drunk, flipped his truck and broke a bone in his neck.
"I didn't see my drinking hurting anybody," said Sandstrom, 30, a father of two.
This time, Sandstrom was offered treatment for not only his alcohol problem but also for the depression that fueled his drinking. In Anoka, all participants must complete a 12-week cognitive thinking program, serve 30 days on house arrest, and obey 10 p.m. curfews most nights of the week for at least four months.
"The cognitive thinking program really made me realize how much of your life is wasting on drinking and why you do the things you do," Sandstrom said.
Since 1999, more than 600 people have gone through Anoka's program and just 15 percent were caught driving drunk again within three years. Statewide, about 19 percent of drivers with three DWIs get a fourth within three years.
Several counties followed Anoka's lead. Ramsey County started its DWI Court in 2005, and it spread in 2008 to Hennepin and St. Louis counties. Others are considering it.
'The hard way out'
The process moves quickly. In Ramsey County, participants are sentenced and begin treatment in about two weeks, versus eight months or so for other offenders. Participants get 45 days in jail, but that sentence is often reduced to 23 days if they stay sober. DWI Court can take 13 months to two years to complete. If someone bails out, they usually have to spend a year in jail.
For most offenders, eliminating a long jail sentence is "a huge carrot," said Mark Gangl, a retired probation agent who works with the program. Often, he said, repeat offenders don't want to be away from their jobs or their children. Other drivers are "tired of the revolving door" and are seeking a way to stay sober, Gangl said.
Still, most repeat offenders aren't eligible or aren't willing to try it. Of the 421 offenders with at least three DWIs who were screened for Ramsey County's program in 2008, just 96 were deemed eligible and only 22 enrolled.
"This isn't the easy way out -- this is the hard way out," said attorney Kate Latimer, who is part of the DWI Court team.
Participants attend court weekly for at least three months, with visits reduced the longer they stay sober. Treatment is mandatory. Several times a week, participants must provide urine and breath tests, but most offenders are given a break if they relapse. Instead of completing the program at home, they may move to a sober house or an inpatient treatment center.
"A lot of these people haven't strung 30 days of sobriety together in years," said District Judge Robert Awsumb, one of two Ramsey Court judges who preside over DWI Court.
Since 2005, 119 people have participated in Ramsey's DWI Court. As a group, those drivers racked up about 400 drunken driving convictions, but none of the graduates has gotten a new DWI. Of the 48 people who completed the program, 86 percent had their driver's license reinstated by the time they finished, compared with 27 percent of offenders who weren't in the program.
DWI Court was funded by a federal grant that provided about $175,000 a year, said Karen Mareck, a District Court administrator. But that money ran out in September, and court officials don't know if they'll be able to keep the program going much longer.
"This program works -- it saves money, it saves lives," Awsumb said. "It would be a tragedy to see it terminated because of a lack of funding."
Enforcement is part of effort
While Anoka and Ramsey have helped drunken drivers find useful ways to avoid jail, the two counties have not eased back on enforcement.
In 2009, Ramsey County officials used a state grant to combine the forces of 10 police agencies that used to run their own saturation patrols. The agencies conduct high-visibility work in a specific zone about twice a month. The first seven events netted 159 DWIs out of 2,442 traffic stops.
In Anoka County, 11 police agencies and the State Patrol spend every Friday and Saturday night targeting a specific location. Officers wear bright "DWI Task Force" vests and electronic road signs tell drivers that they are entering a DWI enforcement zone.
Bar patrons sometimes get coasters that advertise the patrols. One night, more than 100 customers left their vehicles in a bar's parking lot rather than risk arrest, said Anoka County Sheriff Bruce Andersohn.
Since the program started in 2006, more than 1,200 officers have worked 118 patrols. They've made 22,000 traffic stops, resulting in 1,400 DWI arrests. The program is funded with $300,000 in federal money.
"We're looking to change behaviors, not just making more arrests," Andersohn said.
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The Star Tribune is taking an indepth look at the scourge of drunken driving in Minnesota, the victims it claims and the public safety questions it raises. Every year, hundreds of Minnesotans are killed or severely injured in crashes caused by drunken drivers. Another 35,000 are convicted of DWI. What more can be done to clear our roads of the deadly threat? This series will examine the issue. We invite you to join the debate at startribune.com.