DWI Court offers relaxed alternative in serious business

About a dozen people gathered in Cole County Presiding Circuit Judge Patricia Joyce’s fourth-floor courtroom last Wednesday at the DWI Court session.

One at a time, Joyce called people up to the bench, asked about their week and how they were doing with their individual treatment program.

“I know this program seems like a very difficult program,” she told one man. “But remember what it was like before.

“We want you to be able to manage it.”

DWI Court was created to help people with drinking problems that have led them to drive when they should have let someone else behind the wheel.

“For the DWI Court program, this is their third offense,” Joyce explained later. “So, they’ve already had two priors, when they were at the misdemeanor level. The first time, they might have made a mistake. The second time — ‘Oh no.’ The third time — they really have some serious problems.”

They lose their driving privileges.

They face jail or prison time if they’re not accepted into the DWI Court program.

“In the traditional case, they’re put on five years supervised probation,” Joyce said, after serving a sentence of 30-60 days in jail.

But with the alternative, DWI Court, she explained: “They don’t have to do the 30 days or 60 days (in jail) up front, but we put them on alcohol monitoring right away, and that way they are not drinking at all. They are going to therapy two or three days a week. They see their probation officer weekly. They see me weekly.”

And in both the DWI and drug courts, participants are required to get regular — and, sometimes, additional unscheduled — urine tests, to see if they’re staying away from drugs or alcohol.

“And that’s a real intense program for the first five months, and then we scale it down a little bit,” Joyce said.

Each person’s time in the program varies.

“By the time they graduate, they’re 15 to 18 months sober, where they are actually seeing their lives be better,” Jouce said.

The therapy involves work with a mental health professional on both an individual and a group basis.

Another program requirement may be regular attendance at Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) meetings.

And there’s a community service requirement.

Joyce told one man in court last week: “You’re going to be a role model for some of the people in the program, who don’t think AA works.”

Most of the people in court last week had written short reports on a topic the judge set, which Joyce read to herself while the author stood in front of her — the rest of the courtroom didn’t hear, know or share in the writer’s thoughts and observations.

The DWI Court participants were told to write about Thanksgiving before their next court date on Dec. 4.

One of the participants was adamant that no picture or name be used in this — or any other — story about the court.

“No one at work knows I’m doing this,” the person said.

Joyce told another participant that “many people go through this program with co-workers not knowing” about it.

Joyce has been running alternative courts, and working with their clients, for more than a dozen years.

“I think people are embarrassed by it and don’t really understand that there’s a lot of people that are in recovery (who) have gone through it, and will be supportive of it,” she said.

DWI Court is one of several “alternative courts” that Missouri has developed.

They are alternatives to sending people to prison after they’ve been convicted of crimes.

“When you look at the cost of putting somebody in a program, it’s like $4,000 a year,” Joyce said last week. “Keeping them in prison for a year is at least $15,000.”

More importantly, Joyce said, the alternative courts “save lives and restore families” in ways that prison can’t.

Not all, but most of the people who successfully complete an alternative court don’t commit more crimes.

So the courts’ continuing successes have lawmakers, court officials, law enforcement and mental health professionals looking at other ways alternative courts could help reduce crime.

“Our goal is to make our community safe and keep the behavior from happening again,” Cole County Assistant Prosecutor Steven Kretzer explained. “If we can do that with different alternatives, then we’re going to explore that.”

In a speech to the Missouri Bar two months ago, state Supreme Court Chief Justice Mary Russell noted: “We have specialized dockets for people dealing with DWIs, mental health issues and nonsupport issues.

“We also have dockets addressing the special needs of our veterans.”

Missouri lawmakers this year authorized state courts to add alternative courts that would treat veterans as a group, even though they would qualify for an existing alternative court.

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