Isanti judge takes novel and successful approach to punishing drunk drivers

6:09 AM, Jul 3, 2006   |    comments
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An Isanti County judge is gaining attention for the success he's having in cutting down on repeat drunken driving offenses by spreading out an offender's sentence over years. Judge James Dehn has cut repeat DWI offenses in half for the most dangerous drunken drivers by jailing them in July and December over a period of years rather than imposing a traditional jail term. Tim Clark of Ham Lake, who has had nine DWI convictions, says he's been sober for three years -- largely because of what Judge Dehn is doing. "It's about treating them like human beings," Dehn said. Drivers must appear in court before each monthlong jail term. If they can convince Dehn they've been sober, employed and otherwise reformed, he can allow them to skip the month in jail -- until the next time. The extra oversight, along with understanding the unique psychology of the crime, is key to Dehn's success. In a field where even slight reductions are celebrated, experts find Dehn's success in keeping offenders sober eye-popping. "There is no way not to like this," said Dean Grau, a part-time public defender in Pine County and criminal defense attorney who has worked with Dehn. Since Dehn began imposing staggered sentences in 1998, one-third of the state's roughly 300 district judges have used the method. Dehn teaches staggered sentencing to judges at the National Judicial College in Reno, Nev., and the Minnesota Judicial College. He has won awards from Mothers Against Drunk Driving and the national Foundation for Improvement of Justice, as well as the Outstanding Judge Award from the state district judges' association. Dehn's also heavily promotes the system. "He has incredible energy. Sometimes it's hard to find his 'off' switch," said Steve Simon, chairman of the state DWI Task Force and a professor at the University of Minnesota School of Law. Simon said there are many ways to cut drunken driving, but the problem is the cost of lengthy jail terms. Dehn's approach, he said, is effective and cheap. A drunken driver drives intoxicated an average of 700 times before getting arrested, and almost 9 percent of Minnesotans have one or more DWI convictions, Simon said. While jail time deters first-timers, he said it doesn't faze hard-core alcoholics, who often start drinking as soon as they get out of jail. "They are driven to drink. They need to drink." They are also driven to drive, Grau said. "It's not like they are going to quit their jobs and stop supporting their families. They are going to drive without licenses." Staggered sentencing breaks the cycle. Dehn's repeat drunken drivers know they will be locked up if convicted. But instead of passively accepting the sentence, most of them come before Dehn twice a year. If they prove they are sober and living stable lives, he can waive one month's jail time. "You turn the tables on them. It is up to them to come to us and bring motions," Dehn said. It gives Dehn control for a longer time. He often requires convicts to wear alcohol-monitoring devices between the in-jail periods. Samantha Houtsma, a 26-year-old stay-at-home mom who lives north of Cambridge, has three DWI convictions. "It has changed my life, staying sober," said Houtsma, who said she hasn't had a drink in two years. She said the staggered sentences and series of hearings before Dehn made more of a long-term impact than a one-shot jail sentence. "Stretching it out like this makes me think about being sober all the time," she said. Sam Scott of North Branch, a cabinetmaker and a third-time DWI offender, impressed Dehn by buying his first house and training for his first triathlon. Staggered sentencing works, he said. "Sobriety is always on my mind now," Scott said. If he had served a single traditional jail term, he said, it would be "out of sight, out of mind." "They reward you for doing well. You get a chance," Scott said.

(Copyright 2006 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)

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