Legislators looking for answers to DWI problem

Posted: Sunday, February 11, 2001

JUNEAU (AP) -- Sticker shock has slowed a couple of legislative measures aimed at getting tough on drunken driving. But the idea of alternative courts for drunken drivers known as wellness or therapeutic courts may be gaining speed.

House Speaker Brian Porter said he ''very much'' wants to see a therapeutic courts bill pass this session. Porter, R-Anchorage, a retired police chief, said the bill will be complex, so he wants to separate it from other anti-drunken driving measures facing legislators this session.

The costs of two bills that would treat more drunken driving offenses as felonies jumped above $100 million. Estimates aren't out yet on the cost of a bill setting up a pilot therapeutic courts program, but agency officials say it would be nowhere near that much.

In therapeutic courts, offenders can avoid jail time or cut their sentences by agreeing to participate in treatment and by meeting regularly with a judge to discuss their progress. If they fail to keep up with their treatment, the judge can impose a stiffer sentence.

District Court Judge James Wanamaker runs a small-scale therapeutic court program in Anchorage, in which offenders take a drug that helps reduce the craving for alcohol. The Superior Court in Anchorage also is trying to start a therapeutic drug court using a small federal grant.

Rep. Norm Rokeberg, R-Anchorage, chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, said the committee probably will introduce a bill that adds money to one of the Anchorage programs and fund one in rural Alaska.

Several state agencies would participate in the program and no one has figured out exactly what a pilot program would cost. Rokeberg's office guesses it might be $1 million.

Elaine Andrews, presiding judge for the Third Judicial District in Anchorage, said research shows people stay sober longer if they go through a therapeutic court than if they go through the regular court system.

''I don't think there's any question there will be long-term savings,'' Andrews said.

The drunken driving legislation is largely in response to several high-profile fatal drunken driving cases last year, including an Anchorage case in which a man with six previous driving while intoxicated convictions struck and killed a college student.

The existing laws, which include a mandatory three-day stay in jail for a first offense, work well for most first-time DWI offenders, Porter said. Three-quarters don't ever get picked up again. But current laws don't always work for repeat offenders, whose addiction to alcohol may be stronger than their desire to stay out of trouble.

''We saw last year too many of them get out and start re-offending before the ink is dry on their release,'' Porter said.

Porter said although the therapeutic court legislation is a priority for him, that doesn't mean proposals to toughen DWI sentences can't also be part of the solution.

''That's fine,'' Porter said. ''It just give the court more options.''

But tougher sentences are turning out to be high-cost solutions.

Rokeberg and Pete Kott, R-Eagle River, both introduced bills that called for confiscating offenders' vehicles and treating third-time DWI offenses as felonies regardless of the amount of time between offenses. Under current law a third DWI is not a felony if it's been more than five years since the previous offense.

Affected departments estimated Kott's bill would cost $121 million and Rokeberg's would cost $154 million, according to information provided by Rokeberg's office.

The biggest cost was treating more offenses as felonies. The Department of Corrections estimated it would spend $90.5 million expanding prisons and another $23.4 million running them and paying for more probation officers.

The department added another $28.5 million to the bill for Rokeberg's measure because he wanted to add 10 days jail time for a second offense and another six months jail time for drunken drivers whose blood alcohol level is .16 or greater.

Kott stripped the third-offense felony and vehicle forfeiture provisions from his bill after he learned of the cost, although the bill still requires that drivers show proof of insurance to register cars and requires treatment for alcohol offenders as much as possible while they are incarcerated.

Rokeberg is trying to figure out how to bring down the cost of his proposal.

''Anytime you have legislation like this, you have to make a decision as to the balance,'' Rokeberg said.

Sen. Kim Elton, D-Juneau, has proposed one way to help pay for the measures. He's pushing a bill that would raise the tax on alcohol to 25 cents per drink. That would bring in an extra $58 million to $68 million a year, with half going to municipalities to help with their alcohol-related costs, Elton said.

But as a minority Democrat, he's likely to have trouble getting the bill through the Legislature. So far no majority Republicans have publicly endorsed the alcohol tax idea.

Rokeberg said he doesn't like the idea because taxes can't be dedicated to a particular program in Alaska. But he didn't rule it out.

''It's an issue that's under discussion,'' Rokeberg said.

Several other ideas for tackling drunken driving also are before the Legislature.

Rep. Scott Ogan, R-Palmer, wants to mandate that all bars close at 2 a.m., which he said will keep drunk people from driving from Anchorage to the Matanuska Valley where bars close later.

Rep. Joe Green, R-Anchorage, has a bill that would prevent people from buying alcohol for a year if they are convicted of drunken driving.

Rokeberg's bill, a Kott bill and an Elton bill call for lowering the blood alcohol level at which a person is considered to be driving drunk to .08. A federal law threatens to take away about $3.6 million in transportation money by October 2003 if Alaska doesn't adopt that standard.

The state also stands to gain about $850,000 in federal money for safety programs this year if it passes a .08 measure.

But Rokeberg said the money's not free. The Department of Corrections estimates it will spend another $3 million jailing .08 DWI offenders.

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