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Bemidji City Council: Cuts put DWI Court in jeopardy

A program designed to combat drunken driving has been proven to reduce recidivism - the likeliness of reoffending - from 64 to 14 percent.

But it is in danger of being cut.

Beltrami County DWI Court, a program specifically designed to tie together the resources of law enforcement, prosecution, probation and the judicial system, will lose its funding source Sept. 30.

Beltrami County District Judge Shari Schluchter was joined by several partners Monday night as she asked the Bemidji City Council to financially support a program that has been proven to change a person's life.

"If we slam the door on these people, there's nothing else for them," she said.

DWI Court is targeted at drunken drivers who have multiple offenses. The program involves "intense" supervision as participants meet weekly with a probation agent, respond to unannounced yet consistent random alcohol checks and report biweekly to Schluchter.

"This program needs funding. We come to you as a source," she said. "We can't just slam the door on a program that works."

The program began in Beltrami County in July 2007 with a three-year grant through the Minnesota Department of Public Safety. The grant runs out Sept. 30.

It costs $92,700 to operate DWI Court for one year. Based on the jail and prison time avoided through the program, it has saved $279,720 in those costs in its 33 months.

Schluchter said the DWI Court team has committed to working with the program's 19 current participants but has stopped accepting new ones.

"We refuse to say we are closing our doors," the judge said.

The program, which includes different stages, generally lasts 18 to 24 months. Upon completion, participants graduate.

County Attorney Tim Faver said 20-25 individuals in the last three months have been eligible for the program, but unable to join.

In its 33 months, the DWI Court has had 40 participants. Of those, 16 (40 percent) have graduated, 19 are active and five have been terminated. None of the graduates has reoffended; none of the 19 active participants has reoffended; one of the five terminated was convicted of a new DWI offense.

"We have very little failure in this program," said Bemidji Police Capt. Bob Lehmann. "This is a program that works."

Participants throughout the course of the program have come to appreciate and even thank law enforcement for its efforts, Schluchter said.

One said, "You've saved my life and I think you've saved somebody else's life as well," referencing his or her drunken driving past. Another participant has obtained a driver's license and is now able to drive legally for the first time since 1978.

All graduates of the program are employed, attending college or retired. Of the 19 active, 12 are employed, one is attending college, three are employed and attending college, one is retired and two are seeking employment.

"I'm amazed at the number of people who have improved their job status and become tax-paying citizens and contributing members (of society)," Schluchter said.

Sheila Fontaine, the probation agent for the program, said the program is all about accountability. Law enforcement officers stop and take random alcohol tests of participants at all times of the day.

Lehmann said participants have told him that they don't drink because they know the one time they do, a police officer will come knocking.

Fontaine, who works with the Minnesota Department of Corrections, said the program not only keeps participants sober throughout its course, but teaches participants how to maintain their sobriety.

"Our job is ... to help move them from external motivation (such as random alcohol tests) to internal motivation," she said.

Lehmann added that entering the program is more than just a commitment to an intense rehabilitation program: It's a change in lifestyle.

"They will lose friends through this program," he said, "but those friends are their drinking buddies."

Schluchter said alcoholism is an addiction, and DWI Court expects some degree of failure. One motto of the court is: Fall down seven times, get up eight.

All of the partners involved in DWI Court believe in its benefits, Schluchter said.

"Three and a half years ago, we were all a little bit skeptical about this new DWI Court program," she said.

But, as they've seen participants work to turn their lives around, they've all come to see it as a positive, proven method to fight drunken driving, she said.

"We've done good work and we're proud of the work we've done," she said, noting that each partner also has learned from the program. "We are better at doing what we do in our day jobs, so to speak, because of our ability to participate in this program."

DWI Court partners also have made a presentation to the Beltrami County Board of Commissioners. Commissioners, like the council did Monday night, said they would look at the budget and see if dollars could be found.

The Beltrami County DWI Court will celebrate National Drug Court Month beginning at 3:45 p.m. Wednesday with a short review hearing, which will immediately be followed by a celebration with refreshments. The event will be held at the Beltrami County Law Enforcement Center.