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DWI Court: Project turns lives around and saves taxpayer money

Beltrami County instituted DWI Court in June 2007 as an alternative to jail time and probation for people arrested for drunken driving.

On Friday, attorneys, judges and treatment professionals held a seminar to review the progress of DWI and Drug Courts.

Although Beltrami County District Court doesn't have a Drug Court, gradates of DWI Court have told their stories of the inspiration and practical help they have received in changing their lives from addicted to sober.

During Friday's seminar, Michael Finigan, chairman and owner of NPC Research Inc. of Portland, Ore., cited studies that show the alternative approaches to illegal drug and alcohol offenses not only help reduce recidivism, but also cost taxpayers less than "business as usual" jail and probation.

He said people underestimate how much probation costs.

"Most agencies spent less on Drug Court than on traditional case processing," Finigan said. "Drug Courts integrate alcohol and other drug treatment services with the justice system case processing."

He said team involvement and non-adversarial attitudes are keys to success.

Eligible participants are identified quickly, usually within 20 days of their arrests. The focus on relapse prevention also is a money saver, Finigan said, citing figures of three times the savings over conventional approaches.

Finigan said DWI Courts have been part of the system for less time than Drug Courts, but are modeled on the approach to dealing with drug offenses. Differences include the tendency for DWI offenders to being high functioning in other aspects of their lives and that alcohol is a legal substance.

Finigan's research indicates that DWI Court participants are 19 times less likely to be re-arrested on DWI charges and three times less likely to be re-arrested on any other charges. They also spend less time in jail and more time in treatment.

"So far, there is good evidence that DWI Courts are more efficient and more effective for treatment of DWI offenders than traditional probation," he said.

Other speakers at the Changing Systems - Changing Lives seminar were Pam Norenberg, District Drug Court coordinator; District Judge Shari Schluchter, Beltrami County DWI Court judge; and Dan Griffin, Court Operations analyst for chemical health with the Minnesota State Court Administrator's Office.