DARLINGTON – A New Year has begun which means the possibility at starting over fresh and getting a second chance at something in life you had wished you could do. This will truly be a second chance at life for those participating in the newly established OWI Treatment Court in Lafayette County.
The program began in October 2020 and currently has four participants.
“Not only are we treating these individuals, we are helping them stay sober,” Lafayette County Judge Duane Jorgenson told the Lafayette County Board of Supervisors in December. “They are addicted. They have a problem and it needs to be addressed.”
The OWI (operating while intoxicated) Treatment Court is geared toward treating and rehabilitating offenders instead of punishing them. It is a treatment-based alternative to jail, prison and the standard probation model. The justice system works cooperatively with treatment agencies and other rehabilitation services to provide a participant with all the possible tools required to get into recovery, stay in recovery, and lead a productive, crime-free life.
Lafayette’s program deals with those who have three OWIs or above and live within the county.
“I am encouraged by the approach we are taking,” Jorgenson said. “I have a gut feeling that this will be very successful.”
Within the OWI Treatment Court, there is a whole team monitoring the participant’s progress in substance abuse treatment.
Susan Hempler is Lafayette County’s Treatment Court Clinician. She recently worked for the Iowa County Treatment Court program and has worked in restorative justice programs for 20 years. She is credentialed in substance abuse treatment as well as mental health as a licensed psychotherapist.
“People come to the table not just with an issue with driving under the influence. They come with all sorts of issues and that is what we are trying to get at,” Hempler said.
Repeat impaired drivers commonly suffer from mental health and substance use disorders. Left untreated, repeat impaired drivers are statistically the most dangerous drivers on the road and overrepresented in fatal crashes.
Jorgenson, who is a big advocate for the program, is excited to have Hempler on the team, along with other team members from the Lafayette County Sheriff’s Department, Department of Corrections, District Attorney Jenna Gill and Court Services Director Kris Fleming.
“I am really encouraged by the enthusiasm and drive by everyone,” Jorgenson said.
Jorgenson added that the amount of money the program saves the court system is “quite incredible”.
OWI Treatment Court participants are under strict supervision: they have mandated home visits, continuous alcohol monitoring, and frequent appearances in court. They undergo rigorous, evidence-based individual treatment and participate in group therapy. Participants see Jorgenson on Monday mornings at 9 a.m. in the Lafayette County Courthouse.
On Jan. 4 all four participants met with Jorgenson to discuss what their New Year’s Resolution is, what is a goal they plan on reaching that week and how they plan on reaching that goal.
One participant has been sober for 89 days. One of his goals is to get back out into society and spend more time with family and friends.
“I want to get out and see what the real world is like instead of hiding,” they told the court.
Another participant has been sober since July 4 and is thankful for the support system they have in their family.
“I don’t want to lose my family,” the participant tearfully said reading a letter as part of the group therapy. “My goal is to have more of a relationship with my family. My family is the only ones that matter.”
Each participant spoke on their anxiety and mental wellness.
“I need to have a more positive attitude,” another participant said. “I like how I have evolved. I had 10 to 12 years of life wasted on alcohol.”
Jorgenson told one participant to be patient with themselves.
“It wasn’t a short period of time for you to get here. You need to be patient. Work at it and be positive,” Jorgenson said.
Research shows that OWI Treatment Courts are the most successful way to reduce impaired driving, decreasing recidivism by as much as 60 percent.
The programs are recognized for how they differ from traditional criminal courts where positive reinforcement is more frequent and incentives are used to help offenders reach their goals and take back control over their lives.