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Staggered Sentencing for Repeat Drunk Driving Offenders

  • Need: To reduce the incidences of repeat drunk driving.
  • Intervention: Repeat DWI (driving while intoxicated) offenders were given a staggered sentence, allowing them to serve their sentence in segments of time, typically separated by several months to a year. The offender was able to file a motion to request a waiver for the remaining sentence period(s), if able to show that he/she maintained sobriety.
  • Results: The incidence of recidivism, or crime relapse, has been reduced among offenders given staggered sentences, by comparison to offenders given traditional DWI sentences. The program has also reduced the average cost of jail time that otherwise would have been served from a full sentence.


In 2011, approximately 40 percent of the DWI arrests in Minnesota were made on offenders with prior DWI convictions. Many rural courts lack the financial resources to develop a "DWI collaborative team" model. District Judge James Dehn in Isanti County, Minnesota developed the staggered sentencing model to reduce the likelihood of repeat DWI offences. The judge-driven program aims to improve public safety while providing opportunities for rehabilitation and accountability for those abusing substances.

The Staggered Sentencing model, Minnesota Statute 169A.275 Subdivision 6(b), allows repeat DWI offenders who successfully comply with the program's conditions of release, the opportunity to reduce their total sentence. A DWI offender would serve a portion of his/her sentence, then if able to prove sobriety, he/she could request to have the remaining sentence waived. Under staggered sentencing, the time in jail is broken down into equal segments and spread out over 3 or more consecutive years.

Services offered

The following are key components of the Staggered Sentencing model:

Staggered Periods of Incarceration

  • The offender was placed on probation and allowed to serve the sentence in 2 or 3 periods of incarceration, rather than a full continuous sentencing.
  • The first segment of incarceration began shortly after being sentenced.
  • Periods of incarceration were spaced apart by several months to 1 year.
  • He/she could file a motion with the court to request to waiver for the subsequent periods of incarceration if he/she maintained sobriety while on probation.

Home Electronic Alcohol Monitoring (HEM)

  • Offenders were required to use Home Electronic Alcohol Monitoring (HEM), usually in periods of 30 days/year.
  • Typically the offender had to provide a breath sample into the HEM unit 3 times/day.
  • If a sample tested positive for alcohol or if the offender failed to provide a mandatory sample, then they were brought back before the sentencing judge.

Offender Participation

  • It was the responsibility of the offender to show evidence of his/her sobriety and file a motion if he/she wished to have remaining sentence(s) waived. Letters could be submitted from friends, AA supporters, employers, probation officers, etc.
  • Offenders also had the opportunity to request a waiver for the next HEM requirement.

Well-defined Consequences for Probation Violations at Initial Sentencing

  • Failure to maintain sobriety during the sentencing resulted in consequences that were clearly defined at the initial sentencing. Typically, the penalty was immediate incarceration for the remainder of the sentence.
  • If the offender did not wish to file a motion for the next sentence installment, they simply fulfilled the remainder of that sentence. There was no penalty for not filing the motion, as long as the offender appeared for the next sentencing.


Staggered Sentencing in Isanti County has produced the following results:

The Staggering Sentencing model continues to be carried out by judges all over Minnesota. As many as 30 states have started similar programs.

The program has been recognized as a national model in rural transportation by the University of Minnesota Center for Transportation Studies and the Center for Traffic Studies, the National Judicial College, the Center for Alcohol Policy, the National Transportation Safety Board, the Foundation for Advancing Alcohol Responsibility, and the National Beer Institute.

Judge Dehn received the 2003 Paul H. Chapman Award for his Staggered Sentencing model. He has also been recognized by two national MADD awards, and several state-level awards for his model addressing the issue of drunk driving. Several other Minnesota courts have since adopted the Staggered Sentencing model for DWIs.

For more information about this program and its results:

RHIhub's Rural Health Models and Innovations hosts a related success story on drunk driving prevention in Isanti County: Isanti County Safe Cab Program.

The Foundation for Advancing Alcohol Responsibility ( advocates for Judge Dehn's Staggering Sentencing model on their website.


These considerations have been recommended for program replication:

  • Utilize a team approach that includes participation from offender, probation officer, prosecutor, etc.
  • Important for jurisdictions to customize their own model of staggered sentencing
  • Consider using adaptive variations to the approach, based on factors such as the blood level content of the offender, the number of past DWI convictions, etc.

Contact Information

James Dehn, Judge of District Court
Staggering Sentencing

Criminal justice system
Substance use and misuse

States served

Date added
July 2, 2013

Date updated or reviewed
August 30, 2022

Suggested citation: Rural Health Information Hub, 2022. Staggered Sentencing for Repeat Drunk Driving Offenders [online]. Rural Health Information Hub. Available at: [Accessed 13 July 2024]

Please contact the models and innovations contact directly for the most complete and current information about this program. Summaries of models and innovations are provided by RHIhub for your convenience. The programs described are not endorsed by RHIhub or by the Federal Office of Rural Health Policy. Each rural community should consider whether a particular project or approach is a good match for their community’s needs and capacity. While it is sometimes possible to adapt program components to match your resources, keep in mind that changes to the program design may impact results.