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Beltrami County DWI court graduates a record four participants

Judge Shari Schluchter presented Swede Carlson with a card and medal during Beltrami County's DWI commencement ceremony Wednesday. MONTE DRAPER/BEMIDJI PIONEER

BEMIDJI -- Sirens sound, heart quickens, panic strikes, flashing lights, pull over -- you’re busted. Four people arrested for DWI in Beltrami County have overcome the experience of being pulled over for drunk driving. They graduated from DWI Court on Wednesday.

Two women and two men received graduation cards and a medal from Judge Shari Schluchter. The medal is scripted with the words: Fall down seven times, get up eight.

“It is a real celebration that four people are commencing today,” Schluchter said.

One guest of honor offered to share his story.

“It’s pretty basic. I was an addict,” said Swede Carlson.

Carlson, of Bemidji, received his third DWI before realizing a change needed to be made. While sitting in jail, he was contacted by DWI court probation officer Mark Smith. At first he didn’t think much of joining the program, but he was looking at a 20-month sentence if he didn’t change. He accepted Smith’s offer to participate in DWI court.

“I got my first DWI in 2005,” Swede confessed. “I couldn’t stop, I considered myself a ‘controlled alcoholic.’”

After another DWI followed in 2011, Carlson said family and friends started to express concern with his behavior, some started to distance themselves. His five children and his wife, who he said is a big supporter of his lifestyle change, were a major factor in his decision to participate in the program.

“I started waking up after that last time in jail,” Carlson said. “I couldn’t control it. One time I almost took out a family on the highway when doing a U-turn. I felt horrible.”

Carlson went home and poured out his liquor that day. But that wasn’t the day he was last arrested for DWI. Less than a year after his second DWI conviction, Carlson was pulled over and arrested for DWI number three on June 18, 2012.

“You can only change if you want to change,” Carlson said. “A big lie people tell themselves is the drinking and drugs are part of who they are. That’s not you, it’s a choice you make.”

Carlson plans to continue with addiction treatment after Wednesday’s commencement. In June, Carlson will celebrate two years sober. He said since he changed his lifestyle, the drama factor changed from 90 percent to 10 percent.

“It’s an extreme difference in lifestyle. Everything in my life has always been to the extreme,” Carlson said. “I’m going to keep it positive.”

How the program works

Beltrami County DWI court began in August 2007. Since that time, 82 people with qualifying DWI offenses have participated. The court has a 77 percent success rate with 46 people advancing to commencement. There are currently 22 active people in the three-phase program.

“At the time our program was started, Beltrami County was a county with a very high number per capita of alcohol related crashes,” said Lisa Santee, coordinator for Beltrami County DWI Court. “It was the concern for public safety that propelled the start of this court.”

Judge Schluchter has been the presiding judge in the program since its inception. She said there are three goals: sobriety, personal growth and public safety.

“It really is an individual journey,” Schluchter said. “It’s an individual focussed group and it’s an individual focussed court.”

Some people will complete the program in 18 months, others may take two years. Some may have relapses, others will be star students. Those who relapse will be provided aftercare and relapse prevention treatment.

Prior to Wednesday’s commencement celebration, participants in the program presented Schluchter with a book signed each time they attend group sessions. She asked them why honesty is important and how long since their last substance use. Each had a different answer.

Beltrami’s DWI court combines substance abuse intervention with judicial oversight to reduce the DWI recidivism rate. A series of incentives and sanctions are used through the court process. Positive behaviors, like achieving and maintaining sobriety, are rewarded with phase progression, praise from Schluchter, gift cards, medallions and the commencement ceremony.

Santee said some goals for participants are to improve education or employment, regain a legal driver’s license, obtain stable housing and remain law abiding. Participants who engage in prohibited activity or show lack of activity are subject to sanctions including curfew, jail time, community service, increased urinary analysis and court appearances, formal apology to the court and review.

Wednesday, one man had a citation since his last session, another had a relapse. Both were “sentenced” to community service in the form of chipping ice.

Fourteen people have been terminated from the program due to repeat criminal activity or failure to progress. People terminated from DWI court are placed back in district court to face the original charge that landed them in DWI court, Santee explained.

“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,” Santee said.

A priority for participants is “getting mobile” by obtaining a valid license and a vehicle with a starting ignition interlock. Some will be on interlock for two years, others for six depending on the severity of their crime.

Santee said the need for a DWI court has been an evolutionary process, becoming more necessary with the increased DWI offenses over the years. The courts sought ways to deter and address repeat alcohol offenders while expediting time between an arrest and treatment for the individual.

“As the growth and success of drug court programs nationally has increased, that philosophy has been adapted to the DWI arena as well,” Santee said. There are six DWI courts in Minnesota’s ninth judicial district.

Participants volunteer for the DWI court program. People are eligible for the program if they are a resident of Beltrami County, are chemically dependent and have a qualifying DWI offense. Qualifying DWIs are from first to third-degree depending on circumstances. A first-degree DWI offense is punishable by imprisonment of up to seven years and a fine of $14,000. Second-degree and third-degree DWI are gross misdemeanors and fourth-degree is a misdemeanor. Penalties for second through fourth degree vary depending on the number of times the crime has been committed.

“It’s not designed for first time offenders,” Santee said. “People entering into this program are intensively supervised by a Minnesota Department of Corrections probation officer.”

Regular court appearances are required of people going through the DWI court program. Random drug and alcohol testing and random home and field visits are conducted by the DWI court probation officer and law enforcement. Santee said the Beltrami County Sheriff’s Office and Bemidji Police Department perform checks two to four times a week at any time of the day. Participants must submit to a breath sample upon request.

“Without the assistance of local law enforcement, the Beltrami County DWI court would not be as effective,” Santee said.

The DWI court is comprised of the judge, county attorney, probation officer, chemical health treatment provider, law enforcement and a coordinator. However, participants are the main players.

Funding for the program is provided by a Minnesota Office of Traffic Safety grant. The current annual budget for the program with a 25 person capacity is $96,000. The cost in 2012 was $92,000.

As of Jan. 1, DWI offenses accounted for 6.5 percent of the adult inmate population in Minnesota Correctional Facilities. Nine of 106 inmates in the Beltrami County Jail on Wednesday had DWI related offenses.

Crystal Dey
Crystal Dey covers crime, courts, tribal relations and social issues for The Bemidji Pioneer in Bemidji, Minnesota. Originally from Minnesota’s Iron Range, Dey has worked for the Echo Press in Alexandria, Minnesota, The Forum in Fargo, North Dakota, The Tampa Tribune in Tampa, Florida, the Hartford Courant in Hartford and West Hartford News in West Hartford, Connecticut. Dey studied Mass Communications at Minnesota State University Moorhead with an emphasis in Online Journalism. Follow Crystal Dey on Twitter @Crystal_Dey.
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