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County Executive's Office

County Executive Falk Reports Success with County Pilot Project Testing Alcohol Offenders

April 14, 2011
Joshua Wescott, Office of the County Executive (608) 267-8823 or cell (608) 669-5606
County Executive

New Dane County Initiative Preventing Convicted Drunk Drivers from Getting Back on the Road Before They’re Fully Rehabbed


A scientific test used to determine whether repeat drunk drivers have truly succeeded at kicking their addictions has prevented alcohol offenders from getting back behind the wheel before they should, County Executive Kathleen Falk announced today.


The news was part of a comprehensive update Falk provided on the many efforts the county has undertaken to confront the problems caused by alcohol abuse in our community. She held a press conference at Madison’s Cherokee Heights Middle School, one of several middle schools where the county and Catholic Charities are partnering to help kids using alcohol.


“Confronting the biggest public safety threat facing our county is no small task, but we’re taking on this really big problem head-on,” Falk said.  “We’re working with those of all ages, in every corner of this county, and bit by bit we’re making progress, but we have a long way to go in changing this sad part of our culture,” she added.


A year ago, Falk announced the county would begin to use “biomarkers” screening to confirm if drunk drivers were truly staying sober.  This highly scientific blood test is unique because unlike other more traditional evaluations, this test gauges whether a person has consumed alcohol in the past several weeks - - instead of just the past day or two.


Since the program debuted in March of 2010, 100 people have been tested as part of a pilot project to gauge how well convicted offenders are really doing in recovery prior to re-earning the right to drive.  Nearly a third of them tested positive for heavy drinking after their OWI arrest and more than half of them reduced alcohol consumption after being told those results. Others had to re-do parts of their rehabilitation that is required prior to being eligible to have their driver’s license reinstated.


“Biomarkers allow us to identify heavy drinkers so that we make sure that OWI offenders are getting the appropriate treatment before they get their driver’s license back,” Dr. Pamela Bean, lead author of the Biomarkers study said.


In addition to using this testing, Falk also announced Thursday the innovative Dane County “Pathfinders” program she created in 2003 had a 84% success rate in 2010.  “Pathfinders” is an intensive rehabilitation program that helps repeat drunk drivers beat the dangerous addiction that keeps landing them in trouble with the law.  The county contracts with Catholic Charities to help alcohol abusers get their lives back on track. A 2010 Pathfinders report shows 85% participants “graduated” and had stable housing. A majority of them also got jobs (56%).


“We launched this program many years ago to slow the revolving door of people who go into and out of our jail every few weeks for problems related to alcohol abuse,” Falk said.  “Pathfinders has made our county safer and helped hundreds of people and their families find their way.”


Dane County Pathfinders was recently awarded $24,000 in Residential Substance Abuse Treatment grant funds from the Wisconsin Office of Justice Assistance.  These dollars will further advance substance abuse treatment work in the Dane County Jail and help inmates develop skills that will be useful for them as they look to reenter the workforce.  This grant was secured by the Dane County Office of Equal Opportunity.


In addition to Pathfinders, Catholic Charities is also partnering with Dane County in several local middle schools to help young people using alcohol.  This work is being done in middle schools in Madison and Middleton.  Studies have shown that if a kid starts drinking by the age of 14, they are three or four times more likely to have a big alcohol problem as an adult. 


Falk also announced today the county’s ongoing, grassroots “citizen coalition” work to change the cultural acceptance of alcohol abuse is now being coordinated by the group “Health First Wisconsin.”  As part of their efforts facilitating the Dane County Coalition to Reduce Alcohol Abuse, the group has launched a new website and blog and is using social media outlets to organize community members around preventing excessive drinking and problems it leads to like  car crashes, sexual assaults, and underage drinking.


“The Dane County Coalition to Reduce Alcohol Abuse has made great strides drawing attention to a very critical public health issue in our communities - - risky alcohol behavior,” said Maureen Busalacchi, executive director of Health First Wisconsin.  “We’re excited to use this momentum going forward to promote and support evidence-based strategies to change the social norm surrounding alcohol abuse in our areas from one of acceptance to one that prevents it and stop the problem drinking that too often leads to crime, violence, and even death.  Please join us as we move forward to a healthier Wisconsin by signing up to be a part of the movement at: everyone deserves a healthy place to live, work, learn and play.”


As part of Alcohol Awareness Month, “Health First Wisconsin” this week pulled together and met with leaders of community-based alcohol coalitions, local officials, professional educators, law enforcement and concerned citizens from across the county.  In the weeks ahead, it plans to work with other local coalitions in Dane County to host “Life of an Athlete,” a forum with  John Underwood, an Olympic trainer and prominent national speaker, and local school and athletic officials to talk about the importance of having uniform athletic codes to discourage young student athletes from drinking.

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