St. Croix County human services officials said they are making changes to a program for drunken-driving defendants after it was identified as the most expensive of its kind in Wisconsin and saddled with long waits.

The program requires people convicted of an OWI offense in St. Croix County to pay a $380 fee for an alcohol assessment as part of the process to restore driving privileges.

Some in the judicial system said the fee is problematic for low-income defendants who often return to the roads without a license because they can’t afford to pay.

St. Croix County Circuit Court Judge Scott Nordstrand said that’s not an uncommon practice. Those operating-while-revoked cases are “one of the most common charges that the DA sends to us,” he said.

Brian Smestad, a manager for the Wisconsin State Public Defender’s Office, called the fees a barrier to progress for those OWI defendants.

“Indigent people here are out of luck,” he said.

Compounding the issue in some cases is a wait list to receive an assessment.

State law requires assessments to be completed in 14 days, with the option for a 20-day extension.

The local wait list is currently about six weeks, St. Croix Department of Health & Human Services leaders said. Nordstrand said it can exceed two months.

St. Croix County Behavioral and Health Services Administrator Steve Kirt said the state hasn’t held counties to that timeline, but 14 days “would be the golden number.”

Nordstrand brought the issue of fees and waiting times to County Board committees in June, which touched off a process that led to staffing changes and department officials taking a closer look at the assessment system.

‘Vicious circle’

The judge told RiverTown Multimedia he hopes the system can keep from becoming a revolving door for those who appear before him.

He said punishment and deterrence must be part of the solution, “but people need to also be given the opportunity to recover and not reoffend.”

Wisconsin statutes allow for Alcohol and Other Drug Abuse (AODA) assessment fees to be waived for impoverished people who face some controlled -substance offenses. Until Nordstrand raised the issue, St. Croix County had not waived those fees, but Human Services supervisor Kristin Deprey said at a July 10 committee meeting that the department will now allow a sliding scale.

State law, however, does not allow for assessment fees to be waived in OWI cases.

For first offenses, defendants get an occupational license as soon as they schedule their assessments.

Without that occupational license, defendants can’t get to work and subsequently can’t provide for basics, like rent, bills and child support, Nordstrand said.

The assessment fee must be paid in advance, however, before an assessment can be scheduled.

Smestad said getting to work to pay the assessment fee is even harder in St. Croix County, where there is no public transportation system.

“It’s a vicious circle,” he said.” We’re not an urban county.”

Sometimes, in a desperate or misguided effort, the judge said indigent defendants drive without a license.

“We potentially create an opportunity for the defendant to not succeed in their recovery,” Nordstrand said.

Costs, explained

Kirt said the rationale for up-front payment is similar to the courts setting bail — it creates an incentive to follow through with the assessment. He said figures show that since the county went to the up-front fee system, it lowered the number of no-show appointments, which result in costs to the county and add to the waitlist.

St. Croix County HHS officials said the reason for the $380 fee is multifaceted.

For one, St. Croix County employs a secondary measure in the assessment process called a “collateral” interview. Kirt said eliminating collateral interviews would reduce the fee to $285.

Counties are not required to include collateral interviews, but Kirt and others said there are benefits.

Officials said those interviews are usually done with defendants’ family members, who often share deeper insight into their substance use and help paint a more complete picture for the assessor.

“That’s why we believe it’s an important thing,” Kirt said.

Kirt also said St. Croix County’s cost of living index is about 20% higher than statewide figures. He argued before the HHS committee that applying the cost of living factor reduces the fee from $380 to $304, which he said puts St. Croix in line with neighboring western Wisconsin counties.

HHS committee members approved a plan to fill a vacant position that will be used to help perform assessments. That employee was set to begin in August.

Kirt said that position was previously allocated to the department’s treatment team. The position was recently vacant, but HHS leaders said the new hire will devote time to assessments.

“We’re looking at how we can reallocate and deploy service to reduce this six-week wait time,” Health & Human Services Director Fred Johnson said.

Kirt said the department has been aware of the 14-day requirement — and the allowable extension. He said the department prioritized treatment over assessment at the time.

“Did we always meet that, even with the additional time? No,” Kirt said. “We were doing the best we could.”

Health & Human Service Committee members decided not to change the $380 fee for OWI assessments at the July 10 meeting.

“They explained it real well why they’re doing what they’re doing,” County Board Supervisor and HHS committee member Paulette Anderson said at the meeting.

In addition to approving the restoration of the HHS position, the committee also called on department staff to provide regular updates on the process toward shortening the wait list. Johnson said that will also mean collecting data.

“We’re going to report back regularly,” he said.