Minnesota’s specialty courts for chronic drunken drivers reduce recidivism and save taxpayers money, prompting a call for the program’s expansion.

A national two-year study released Wednesday showed that in nearly all nine of the DWI courts evaluated, the rearrest rates for graduates of the intensive program dropped dramatically compared with offenders who went through the traditional court process. The state’s overall graduation completion numbers were also well above the national average for DWI courts.

Although dozens of DWI and drug courts have been researched, Minnesota’s study is the first to include a cost analysis. Because of the reduced recidivism, local agencies and the state save more than $1.4 million over the two years DWI court participants entered the program.

“We are pleased [with] the court’s impact on recidivism because it reduces traffic fatalities and serious injuries,” said Donna Berger, director of the state’s Office of Traffic Safety. “It’s another tool in the toolbox.”

DWI and drug courts “are the best studied criminal interventions we do,” said Sixth Judicial District Chief Judge Shaun Floerke, who runs the DWI court in Duluth. But there are disparities among jurisdictions because having no DWI court options most likely means an automatic trip to prison, he said.

Minnesota has 16 DWI or hybrid DWI/drug courts, the two largest being in Hennepin and Ramsey counties. The rest of the courts, the first of which started in 2005, are located in rural counties such as Lake of the Woods and Mahnomen. Floerke hopes the Legislature continues its generous funding for DWI courts so they can expand to all parts of the state.

DWI courts typically work to change the behavior of repeat drunken-driver offenders with the threat of incarceration if they fail the program. The courts provide treatment and frequent alcohol and drug testing. There is constant contact with probation officers, behavior therapy and a driver’s license reinstatement plan.

Participants are closely monitored by a judge who is supported by a team of the various players in the criminal justice system, including prosecutors and defense attorneys.

The courts are voluntary, but offenders must qualify. Most courts require at least a year in the program before graduation.

The $500,000 study, commissioned by Berger’s office in late 2011, was funded by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. The goal was a credible and rigorous evaluation of the court process and its effectiveness.

Shannon Carey, drug and DWI court expert and executive vice president of NPC Research in Portland, Ore., presented the study’s findings Wednesday to a statewide advisory group on DWI and drug court initiatives. Her group analyzed offender data and court services, including on-site interviews with staff and offenders. There were also focus groups “because people involved in these courts just work and work and work and need to know what’s working so they won’t stop doing it,” Floerke said.

The Minnesota study contained the largest pool of data sets ever examined, Carey said. Two of the courts didn’t have enough meaningful data, but the other seven courts had at least four years of offender information from the court’s inception until August 2012.

In general, the population of DWI courts differs from other drug courts. In DWI courts, there is a higher percentage of white men and the average age is 38. They have a higher education and are usually employed, Carey said.

Many of the offenders who come into his courtroom are wealthier than him, he said. In drug court, a greater number of offenders are diagnosed with a mental health issue.

“Alcohol isn’t illegal and it’s easier to be functional,” Floerke said. “Alcohol is highly prevalent and even encouraged in many everyday activities.”

The DWI courts that didn’t experience as great a recidivism reduction had problems with court team cooperation and communication, adequate drug testing, appropriate treatment services and available cultural services (many regarding American Indian participants). One of the most surprising study results was the court’s effectiveness on high-risk and high-need offenders and how the same treatment plan can potentially be harmful to low-risk offenders.

“We have to do a better job on who gets admitted to DWI court,” said Bill Ward, chief public defender for Hennepin County. “Politics is getting in the way of having a more successful program. My concerns have fallen on deaf ears.”

Hennepin County Judge Kerry Meyer runs her judicial district’s DWI, mental health and veterans courts. She said they’ve already made some changes because of the study, such as letting offenders with felony drunken driving charges enter the program and using new tools to assess risk levels.

Many at the presentation asked questions about risk factors and how reduced recidivism saved money. On average, the money saved between the different courts ranged from $1,694 to $11,386 per participant over two years. Other less tangible but important savings not factored in the costs include improved family and community relationships, a decrease in health care expenses, improved public safety and DWI court participants working and paying taxes.

Carey said the courts could still improve. Tackling transportation issues in rural areas, more involvement by defense attorneys, and getting offenders into the program within 50 days of their arrest are just a few lessons learned from the study, she said.