OWI Treatment Court, A Program That ‘Changes Lives’

Wisconsin’s First OWI Court Opened To Participants In 2006

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Waukesha County Judge Laura Lau presides over OWI court
Waukesha County Judge Laura Lau presides over a Waukesha County OWI court hearing Thursday, April 11, 2019. Other team members are also present at the hearing. The treatment court is meant as a way to keep drugged and drunken drivers accountable for their actions while also providing the rehabilitation necessary to make them safer, contributing members of society. Darin Dubinsky/WPR

Cassy Rivers remembers nearly everything that happened Aug. 16, 2017.

That day she was driving to a hospital in Oconomowoc to see her husband when she got turned around.

She pulled into the driveway of a home and asked a couple where the hospital was. Instead they asked if they could take her there, and she agreed.

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While in the hospital room about an hour later she was arrested by a Waukesha County deputy for her third OWI.

Her blood alcohol content was 0.34 percent. Wisconsin’s legal limit is 0.08 percent.

“I can tell you I remember most of the night, that just shows you the tolerance I had, and that just didn’t happen overnight. That was years of heavy drinking,” Rivers said.

More than a year-and-a-half later, Rivers calls that third offense a blessing and a turning point because it brought her to the Waukesha County OWI Treatment Court, a treatment program she said has helped her piece her life back together.

OWI treatment courts are known as problem-solving courts. They work with individuals charged with drugged or drunken driving by combining drug and alcohol treatment and the criminal justice system to give participants the tools to change their lives.

Rivers began drinking heavily about nine years ago after receiving some bad news.

Before that day it was “very rare,” Rivers said, that she’d drink. But that day the drink calmed her down “within 30 seconds,” and that memory stuck.

“Any time there was some kind of stress or bad news, it was like my go-to,” she said.

For the coming years, Rivers drank on a nearly daily basis. It got to the point where if she didn’t drink, she’d tremble.

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She didn’t go out with friends or family to a neighborhood bar.

She would sneak alcohol, typically liquor.

Her first OWI was in 2013, her second in 2014.

During those nine years of heavy drinking, Rivers would leave her job of 20 years because of the absences that were adding up, her husband would file for divorce, and she’d miss the high school and college graduations of her twin daughters.

In 2016, Rivers received a text from one of her daughters sent on behalf of both “basically disowning” her, she said. It was addressed to “Cassy” not “Mom.”

Before her third OWI, Rivers listened to pleas from family and friends to stop drinking.

She’d been hospitalized nine times to detox, had done outpatient and inpatient treatment, including two 30-day programs and one 50-day program. There were “brief times” of sobriety, she said, but nothing lasting.

Rivers is what treatment court professionals would call high-risk, high-need. Someone who is dependent on a substance and likely to fail in less intensive treatment programs.

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‘This Is How We Should Be Treating People’

The goal of OWI court is to reduce recidivism rates, reduce participants’ substance use and provide rehabilitation to participants.

A team that includes representatives from across a county — a prosecutor, defense attorney, judge, law enforcement, social service caseworkers, treatment providers and probation and corrections officers — works together to hold participants accountable for their own sobriety and transformation as well as society’s safety.

The incentive? Getting clean and reduced time behind bars.

The program is not a get-out-of-jail free card. It’s intensive.

The team of trained professionals works closely with the participants struggling with addiction.

Among the requirements for participants are mandatory court appearances, recovery meetings, counseling and random alcohol and drug testing.

The community-based treatment court model has been around since the late 1980s, and was born out of the growing number of drug cases, according to a study posted on the U.S. Courts website.

Wisconsin’s first OWI court opened to participants in 2006 in Waukesha County.

Waukesha County stakeholders began seeing a rise in drunken driving offenses and wanted to see if the program could help bring that number down while reducing the incarcerated population, said Rebecca Luczaj, Waukesha County Criminal Justice Coordinating Council coordinator.

People who have been convicted of nonviolent third- and fourth-offense drunken driving are eligible for the county’s program.

Participants typically complete the program in 12 to 14 months, Luczaj said, though it can take longer depending on the participant’s progress or if they face a sanction, such as a night in jail or community service, for a violation like drinking or missing a drug test.

The county’s program is post-conviction, meaning a participant can only begin after a judge has sentenced them and they’ve served their required jail time. A participant with a third or fourth offense is required to spend 30 or 60 days in jail, respectively — far less than what they would serve if they didn’t participate.

There are 31 treatment courts serving OWI offenders in Wisconsin, according to the state Department of Justice website. And there are more than 700 treatment courts serving OWI offenders across the United States, said Jim Eberspacher, division director of the National Center for DWI Courts (NCDC).

Individual courts can decide the population they want to serve and how the court is structured so long as they follow national guidelines — including the 10 Guiding Principles of DWI Court from the NCDC and best practice standards from the National Association of Drug Court Professionals — and state guidelines — including the Wisconsin Treatment Court Standards.

The flexibility given to the courts allows local stakeholders to tailor programs to their community, and it’s effective, according to the DOJ.

Treatment court advocates and experts say services offered in jails and prison don’t effectively treat addiction.

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