JUNEAU — Dodge County Alcohol Court started nearly four years ago. Although some see it as an easy way out after a drunken driving conviction, Judge Brian Pfitzinger disagrees.
Although alcohol court participants may spend less time in jail, they go through quite a bit more than someone who just gets a jail sentence.
“We’re knee deep in their lives for two years,” Pfitzinger said. “How would you like to be on probation? Have somebody who could enter your house at any time with just the belief that you might be doing something inappropriate? Who could take you into custody for 10 days at the drop of a hat?”
He said that giving someone 60 days in jail with Huber privileges doesn’t stop people from drinking or only stops them for 60 days.
“You can’t feel good about the 61st day,” Pfitzinger said.
Participants in alcohol court have to meet two criteria; they have to be willing to participate and they have to have been convicted of their second or third offense of drunken driving. Pfitzinger said under some circumstances, offenders with fourth or higher offenses can participate.
Participants in alcohol court have all of the regular components of a drunken driving conviction: jail, probation, restrictions including absolute sobriety, fines, loss of license, assessments, victim impact panels. However, they also have alcohol court, where they may have to go to court and report their progress to Pfitzinger.
A sobrietor, a machine that checks blood alcohol concentration similar to a preliminary breath test, is installed in participants’ homes. They are required to blow into it at pre-set intervals and the results are reported to their probation agents. They then graduate to an ankle bracelet that constantly checks blood alcohol.
“Every Friday we have alcohol court,” Pfitzinger said. “You are given a court date from there. If you come in to your first appearance and say, ‘I had my assessment, all these things in line,’ your date is going to go out further. I see every defendant at a minimum of every six weeks.”
He said that since the court started, they have only had one person complete the two years of alcohol court and then re-offend. After some debate, he was brought back in to alcohol court as a sounding block to figure out what went wrong.
“We’re trying to grow as a court and trying to find our way in this whole thing and we’re doing a lot of different things, but one of the things is really talking to him and trying to figure out what we did wrong,” Pfitzinger said.
Pfitzinger said that currently more than 60 people have completed alcohol court.
“I don’t ever want to get trapped in numbers,” Pfitzinger said. “If one person doesn’t create that tragedy, I win.”
He specifically referenced homicides by intoxicated use of a vehicle cases.
“They’re the most horrible things on the planet. The anguish, the agony on both sides of the case, the families,” Pfitzinger said. “If I can keep one of those from happening, I win.”
He said his reasons for the alcohol court were both personal and professional. On one hand, as a defense attorney before he became judge, he often saw people in his office with multiple drunken driving convictions. They were in jail or on probation, but there was never any incentive for treatment.
“There’s personal motivation. My family was hit by a drunken driver. Fortunately, we all survived. But we were hit head-on on I94. My mom and dad spent a tremendous amount of time in the hospital,” Pfitzinger said.
When he campaigned, he said he could do it with no budget. He was able to get an administrator and an assistant administrator who volunteered their time. Recently, the alcohol court received a grant that allowed the administrators to be paid a small amount.
Pfitzinger said when they originally went to Madison to apply for a grant, the people they were speaking to were humoring them. When the administrator told them 120 people participated, they became much more impressed.
“We’re the biggest treatment court in the state,” Pfitzinger said.
He said one of the biggest problems is that for most young people, social activities include drinking.
“It’s so prevalent and so socially acceptable that it really does create a big problem,” Pftizinger said. “I’m not anti-drinking, but I am concerned about the segment of our population that just simply lets it get out of control.”
He said that alcohol court includes as much positive reinforcement as it does punishment and he takes it personally when people wash out.
“It is not like anything that you have ever seen before in court,” Pfitzinger said. “Most of these people, I know all about them; from their work, to their family, to their friends, to their neighbors — what their goals are, what their dreams are.”
He said that at one of the celebrations for people who have finished the program, the daughter of one of the participants came down to Dodge County from La Crosse to sit with her father.
“There’s some really cool stories about people who really, their lives have been a mess. Not just them, but their kids, their wives, their husbands,” Pfitzinger said. “How much does it cost your kids to not have a dad there or not have a mom there? Not have the kind of Christmas that you’d like to see with presents under the tree and a ham on the table? How much does it cost that family to not have any of that because dad or mom is sitting in the tavern, spending all their money?”
He said when people first appear in alcohol court, he asks them why they want to be sober. Sometimes they say to avoid jail. But some say they want to be sober for their children or families.
“When we start with that, I’m always optimistic,” Pfitzinger said.