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Man sentenced to sobriety, in DWI Court of Ramsey County


This news story was published on December 31, 2011.
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Mike Blair didn’t think he’d make it sober for one year. He’s made it for five.

Blair, 55, of St. Paul, was recognized for five years of sobriety this week in Ramsey County’s DWI Court – a special court for eligible repeat DWI offenders – from which he’s a graduate. The aim of the court is to increase the number of DWI offenders who become and remain drug- and alcohol-free and to reduce recidivism among offenders to improve public safety.

In 2006, Blair was arrested for his fourth DWI. His parents had always bailed him out of jail. This time, he said, they let him stay put – on Christmas. It was what he needed.

Blair said two things helped him stay sober: His parents’ tough love and spending almost a year and a half working his way through the multiphase DWI Court program.

“It offered less jail time and reduced fines,” he said. “On the other end of it, I had to do more work and appear in court regularly.”

In seven years, the program has graduated 80. Of those, five have picked up new DWIs – all in the past year. Most had been out of the program for a year or longer when they reoffended, said Tanya Jones, court coordinator. None has relapsed while in the program.

Participants are under intense supervision, required to show up in court as often as weekly, and are subject to random testing for chemical use. In return, they get treatment, counseling, access to support groups, and help finding housing and jobs.

“If someone is motivated to make a change,

then this is what the program is about,” said Jessica McConaughey, an assistant St. Paul city attorney and the prosecutor responsible for DWI court. “This is not a program to get out of jail time. This is a program to do it differently.”

ADDRESSING THE REAL PROBLEM

Those in the program plead guilty to DWI. Because it’s the offender’s third or more DWI conviction, he or she is facing a 365-day jail sentence that’s stayed for four years, McConaughey said. The participant must serve six days

in jail and follow all recommendations of the program.

The program has three phases:

— During the first phase, the participant must have 90 days of continuous sobriety and attend court, held on Thursdays, every week.

— During the second phase, the participant needs 120 days of sobriety and attends court every other week.

— In the third phase, the participant needs 180 days before applying to graduate and must attend court once every four weeks.

The earliest someone can graduate is 13 months, McConaughey said.

Participants are terminated if they get a new DWI and are ordered to serve the balance of their 365-day jail sentence, McConaughey said. If there’s a slip-up – for example, if they’ve been found to have taken a drink – the court team works with the participant and imposes graduated sanctions, which could include anything from jail time to community service.

“So much of what we do as criminal-court judges involves punishing criminal offenders. While this is an important role, many DWI offenders are caught in a cycle of offending, serving jail time and then reoffending after their release from jail,” said Judge Lezlie Marek. “In addition to punishment, DWI Court focuses on addressing the underlying problem, which is chemical dependency.”

She adds that the court gets to know the participants personally. Last week, a participant told her that for the first time in his adult life, he has goals and dreams for himself, she said

DWI Court was created after those involved in the criminal-justice system saw a high number of people with DWIs continuing to reoffend, McConaughey said.

“While we did a pretty good job with DWI offenders, we learned that we could do it better,” she said.

It was initially funded through grants. The state doles out money through the State Court Administrator’s office for such special-problem courts. The Department of Public Safety has also chipped in money in 2012. It’s unclear where money will come from in 2013 to pay for the court, which costs $180,000 to operate, Jones said.

SUCCESS STORY

Blair was arrested for DWI in 1981, 1991, 1998 and again in 2006, he said. He went to treatment after his first and third DWIs, but it didn’t stick.

It was blind luck he didn’t get more DWIs within a shorter span of time and end up with a felony-level DWI on his record, he said.

“If I had a DWI for every time I drove drunk, I’d probably have 5,000 DWIs…or more,” he said.

He started drinking when he was 18. He drank daily until he ran out of booze or passed out, he said. He usually didn’t run out.

“Pretty much when I started drinking I was at a very high level. And when I quit drinking I was at the same high level,” he said.

After living in a sober house for a year, Blair became manager of one in St. Paul. For the past three years, he has worked at Foundation House, on the city’s North End.

“I’m not the only success story that DWI Court has had. There are many other success stories,” he said.

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