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DWI court set to be launched

A new Beltrami County courts effort hopes to more intensively monitor problem drunk drivers so they stay out of court. -- and no longer pose a risk to public safety.

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A new Beltrami County courts effort hopes to more intensively monitor problem drunk drivers so they stay out of court. -- and no longer pose a risk to public safety.

People with multiple convictions for drunken driving clog the court calendar, and pose continuing county financial burdens in jail time and public assistance health care.

"People have had many opportunities for treatment, which they have attended and failed," Beltrami County District Judge Shari Schluchter told Beltrami County commissioners last week. "Or they have attended, passed and then relapsed."

Entering alcohol or drug treatment programs is often a provision added to subsequent convictions for driving while intoxicated, but follow-up supervision is limited as a handful of local state Corrections Department agents have large caseloads.

"They need other intensive supervision components," Schluchter said.

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About June 15, the Beltrami County courts system plans to launch a DWI court, a new system where multiple-conviction DWI offenders are given intensive supervision, coordinated through all facets of the criminal justice system.

The mission of the Beltrami County DWI Court "is to enhance public safety through the reduction of DWI recidivism, providing effective evaluation, treatment and persistent offender accountability," Schluchter said.

The program is "about offender accountability and public safety, so people aren't back in court," said County Attorney Tim Faver, who was among several courts officials who briefed county commissioners on the proposal last week.

A number of county officials went to Athens, Ga., to study a DWI/drug court there and came away convinced one is needed in Beltrami County.

"There is a real need to develop this court," said Schluchter, admitting she was a skeptic prior to seeing what is done in Georgia. "We want to enhance public safety and lower our recidivism."

According to a briefing paper prepared by the local DWI court working group, DWI courts utilize all criminal justice stakeholders -- judge, prosecutors, defense attorneys, probation, law enforcement and others -- coupled with alcohol or drug treatment professionals.

The team "uses a cooperative approach to systematically change offender behavior," states the briefing paper. It includes "identification and referral of participants early in the legal process to a full continuum of drug or alcohol treatment and other rehabilitation services.

"Compliance with treatment and other court-mandated requirements is verified by frequent alcohol/drug testing, close community supervision and ongoing judicial supervision in non-adversarial court review hearings," it states.

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Unlike the standard drug court model which coordinates treatment with a single provider, the Beltrami County DWI Court will make use of all treatment providers in the community, Faver said.

The key to a DWI court, according to the briefing paper, is to admit DWI offenders into treatment quickly and for a period of time that is long enough to make a difference.

Under current systems, treatment, when completed, is effective. "However, most addicts and alcoholics, given a choice, will not enter a treatment program voluntarily," the briefing paper said. "Those who do enter programs rarely complete them. About half drop out in the first three months, and 80 to 90 percent have left by the end of the first year. Among such dropouts, relapse within a year is the norm."

The new DWI court keeps the offender under scrutiny for at least two years, in three phases, Faver said.

And the local system will adopt a post-adjudication model which still holds offenders accountable for they've done, he said. "It involves people who choose to accept responsibility for their criminal action and for treatment."

Unlike drug courts, DWI courts primarily operate within a post-conviction model, according to the briefing paper. It cites a National Mothers Against Drunk Driving resolution which recommends that such courts "should not be used to avoid a record of conviction and/or license sanctions."

The county court will be targeted to those with second-degree DWI, or a third conviction within 10 years, Faver said.

The court process involves three phases, he said, with the first two taking six months each and the third phase a year. The final phase involves the offender's permission for supervised probation, a change from the current sentencing for unsupervised probation.

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Once established, the DWI court is expected to convene every two weeks and should be the responsibility of one judge, Faver said. The first six months has the offender before the judge each time, to check on progress. The offender attends whatever treatment is prescribed throughout.

The second six months is much of the same, but with less frequent appearances in DWI court. The final year involves working with Department of Corrections probation agents.

"It is truly a team approach," Faver said. "Law enforcement is also involved in monitoring, through random checks."

Initially, the Beltrami County DWI Court shouldn't draw on local finances, as a federal grant is available.

Pam Norenberg, 9th Judicial District coordinator for drug courts and child support, said the court will receive a $45,000 grant to cover costs from April 1 to the end of the federal fiscal year, Sept. 30, and then must reapply. But such courts have usually been assured of funding for at least four years.

At some point, the county probably will have to fund the court, but County Board Chairman Jim Heltzer said he was "very optimistic" about the DWI court and that it would be "an investment that will pay back many times."

Funding will help the state Corrections Department hire a special agent assigned just to the court, said Rick Thomton, DOC district supervisor for community services.

"We have four agents to do juvenile and adult misdemeanor/gross misdemeanor cases," he told commissioners, "but that's only enough for juvenile cases. This court will involve very intense supervision, and we can't provide that level of service with the current staff."

The grant will allow access to federal funds for four years, he said, with DOC entering into a joint powers agreement with the local court. "It will allow for an agent to do supervision, serving the DWI court."

A need, however, is to find office space for the agent in the newly renovated traditional Courthouse, which will house a number of courts support offices, including DOC probation agents.

"Right now, it doesn't cost the county anything," Schluchter said.

The DWI court has a goal of cutting DWI recidivism by 15 to 25 percent, and reducing overall costs to the community by 10 to 15 percent, Schluchter said, with initially about 30 to 35 offenders moving through the court.

"This is not going to be an easy program for those who are in it," Faver said.

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