Pilot program in Duluth addressing first-time DWI offenders

By KBJR News 1

August 29, 2014 Updated Aug 29, 2014 at 9:59 AM CDT

Duluth, MN (NNCNOW.com) --- Arrowhead Regional Corrections Senior Probation Officer Johnny Walker has worked with juveniles and adults in the Sixth District court system for 32 years.

While specialty courts, like drug and DWI court, aim to address high–intensive cases of recurring felonies stemming from addiction, Walker says the SBIRT system is different.

"They're not the intense, high–risk, 'OK, we need to saturate them with services' type clientele," said Walker. "These guys have done this once, or twice, but this is the first time they got arrested for it."

The concept of SBIRT—or screening, brief intervention, and referral to treatment—actually comes out of the medical field.

Minnesota Sixth District Judge Shaun Floerke calls the program more of a light touch, and a gentle assessment of first–time DWI offenders.

"Most of us have been SPIRT'ed; we just don't know it," said Floerke. "If you've had any kind of emergency care, maybe, even your general practitioner—they're asking you questions."

Judge Floerke says the goal of SBIRT is to triage, separating people according to risk, and need.

"If somebody comes in and they're low risk/low need, and I treat them as though they're high risk/high need, I can actually harm them. I can make them worse," said Floerke. "You're not trying to make them criminalized. You're not trying to pull them deeper into the system."

And if successful, Judge Floerke says it can save everyone time, and money.

The average prison stay in Minnesota is $33,000 a year.

But Floerke says 2/3rds of first–time DWI offenders don't repeat the crime, and the 1/3rd that do are more likely dealing with underlying issues of addiction, or a lack of job skills.

Floerke says if just one of those 1/3rd can address their issues outside the court or prison system at a 10th of the cost, then it's a win–win.

"We're having the conversation, we're making some suggestions. We might be doing a little goal planning," said Floerke.

The SBIRT assessment is voluntary, and can be done in 20 minutes by a trained assessor, like a Probation Officer.

Judge Floerke says 24 people have utilized the SBIRT program in Duluth since it began a few months ago.

If it's successful after extensive follow–up and data checking, the program could expand to the rest of the Sixth District, and throughout the state.

Billy Wagness