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A chance for change

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opinion Bemidji, 56619
Bemidji Pioneer
(218) 333-9819 customer support
Bemidji Minnesota P.O. Box 455 56619

No cap and gown. No tassels.

A graduation nonetheless. And with that comes a sense of pride and accomplishment.

Four people "graduated" from Beltrami County DWI Court last week, bringing the total to 46 people who have went through the program that looks to reduce the DWI recidivism rate in the county, Crystal Dey reported. In all, 82 people have participated in the program since its inception in 2007. There are currently 22 people enrolled in the program, which has three goals: sobriety, personal growth and public safety, Judge Shari Schluchter, who has been with DWI Court from the start, told Dey.

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Not all who have come through the program have graduated, but the program boasts a 77 percent success rate.

In an ideal world, of course, there would be no need for a DWI Court. But this is the real world, and taking steps to reduce recidivism and also increase public safety is a worthwhile program. To be sure, tough laws are needed to deal with repeat drunk driving offenders, including ignition locks on vehicles, substantial loss of driving privileges and, when warranted, lengthy prison sentences. Too many people are killed and injured in drunk-driving related crashes each year, and Beltrami County is no exception. At the time DWI Court was implemented, Beltrami County had a very high number of alcohol-related crashes, per capita, in the state of Minnesota, officials said.

At its basic core, DWI Court is not a replacement of the current district court system, but it adds to the options available to law enforcement and court officials in dealing with DWI offenders. Those who volunteer for the program must take part in treatment, group sessions, as well as take part in all court appointments and other requirements. The time involved in DWI Court varies, but generally lasts from 18 months to two years.

"An emphasis is placed on promoting an environment where participants are engaged in the chemical dependency treatment process long enough to learn the tools needed to become and stay sober," Lisa Santee, coordinator for Beltrami County DWI Court, told Dey.

As Dey reported, it isn't just a single agency or department working to make DWI Court a success. Coordination is key from law enforcement and the courts, alcohol treatment providers, as well as social workers, and, of course, the participants.

The program is not for everyone, officials admit, and those who don't abide by the rules are kicked out and are put back in the district court system to face their original DWI charge. DWI Court is not for first-time offenders, officials said, but rather those multiple offenders who face documented chemical dependency issues. DWI Court is not a get-out-of-jail free card, by any means, but a chance for people to face the consequences of their actions and make positive changes in their lives and the lives of their families.

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