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Beltrami County’s DWI Court marks five years changing lives, improving public safety

Beltrami County District Judge Shari Schluchter rips up a voucher for a female participant in DWI Court after she completed court requirements to again obtain her driver’s license. The “I owe you” voucher is worth $400, which now will be subtracted from her total fee owed. Monte Draper | Bemidji Pioneer

BEMIDJI – It’s about getting from “I can’t” to “I won’t.”

Beltrami County’s DWI Court, targeting repeat drunken drivers, marked its fifth anniversary this year. The program couples intense supervision with treatment and judicial interaction to help offenders stay sober and, therefore, increase public safety.

Nationally, DWI offenders have a recidivism rate of 50 to 60 percent. Of 37 people who have graduated Beltrami County DWI Court, four have since been convicted of another DWI, a recidivism rate of 11 percent.

“We’re providing a program to people who really want to make changes in their lives and who really have to make changes in their lives,” Beltrami County District Judge Shari Schluchter said.

‘A pulic safety issue’

The Minnesota Department of Public Safety reported in August that 651 people have been killed in drunk-driving crashes in the last five years.

In 2011, Beltrami County had three fatal alcohol-related crashes and 22 alcohol-related crashes resulted in injuries, according to the DPS. Since 2000, Beltrami County has averaged more than 430 impaired-driving arrests a year.

The cost of alcohol-related crashes, fatalities and injuries was nearly $5 million in 2011 in Beltrami County and more than $226 million throughout the state, according to DPS figures.

“Drunk driving is such a public safety issue,” said Pam Norenberg, DWI Court coordinator for the Ninth Judicial Court District. “We had to do something.”

Of 66 people who have entered DWI Court, 37 have graduated, 12 were terminated and 17 are active participants. The program typically lasts from 18 to 24 months.

“We have an obligation to keep the public safe,” said Beltrami County Attorney Tim Faver. “Everyone agrees DWIs are a serious, serious problem that affect each and every one of us.”

‘It’s too hard to fake it’

Upon entering the program, participants must complete treatment and begin attending support meetings.

Weekly meetings are required with probation and participants must attend bi-weekly court hearings.

Meanwhile, participants are randomly tested for drug and alcohol use.

Mark Smith, probation agent for the program, said some participants enter the program thinking they can skate through it and reap the benefits, which include lower jail time and reduced fines.

“What they realize after a while is it’s too hard to fake it,” he said. “They have to fully commit or they don’t succeed.”

Relapse is never hoped for, but it is expected.

“It’s part of the reality of the situation,” Smith said. “You’re going to have ups and downs.”

Upon graduation, participants receive a medallion with a quotation: “Fall down seven times, get up eight.”

Another quotation, “There is no change in comfort,” is referenced as participants advance from one stage to the next.

But some of the best lines come from participants themselves, such as one graduate who said DWI Court gave her the tools to go from “I can’t drink” (because she didn’t want to fail a random test) to “I won’t drink.”

‘Bang for your buck’

Beltrami County DWI Court is funded through 2013 thanks largely to a Minnesota Office of Traffic Safety grant, intended only to be an initial three-year grant.

The grant covers the costs for Smith’s work as the probation agent; all other team members volunteer their DWI Court time in addition to their regular workloads.

The cost is $92,700 annually. At full capacity – 25 participants – the annual cost would amount to about $3,700 per person each year.

The annual rate of one prison cell is about $32,400 each year; one jail cell is $27,400 a year.

The goal is to keep DWI Court at full capacity, “Because that’s where you get the most bang for your buck,” Norenberg said.

Actual enrollment, at 17 participants as of the end of September, was below capacity due to a variety of reasons, including that, at one time, DWI Court was believed to have lost its funding.

But, even at 17 participants, the cost per person was about $5,450 a year, far below the estimates required to house an inmate in jail or prison for one year.

“The jail savings alone justifies the program,” Faver said.

Beyond the figures, team members point out the program has helped repeat DWI offenders stay sober, keeping the roadways safer for the public. And, in addition to affecting participants’ lives, it has a ripple effect, improving the lives of their spouses, children and extended families.

“How can you put a cost on that?” Smith said.