ONTONAGON — A program to dramatically reduce drunk driving in the five western Upper Peninsula counties was kicked off at the Ontonagon County Courthouse Wednesday and Thursday.
Ontonagon, Houghton, Baraga, Gogebic and Keweenaw counties will form a regional driving while intoxicated court approach.
Retired Judge Patrick Bowler, after 24 years on the bench, is the state judicial outreach liaison for the program. He conducted the training session for judges and officials of the five counties in Ontonagon.
The DWI court will be the first of its kind, not only in Michigan, but in the United States, Bowler said.
Judges Anders Tingstad, of Gogebic and Ontonagon counties; Janis Burgess, of Ontonagon County; Mark Wisti, of Houghton, Keweenaw and Baraga counties, and prosecutors, police, parole officers and clerks of the courts attended the two-day session.
Bowler said the DWI court “...is hard-core, highly structured, has strict accountability and is rigorous. Offenders will have to use a combination of treatment, appearances before a judge and court every week or two weeks, and undergo rigorous tests for alcohol and drugs on a random basis.”
Other obligations will also be imposed, such as 12-step programs, community service, and obtaining a GED if the offender does not have one. “It’s a full court press,” he said.
Bowler believes the new DWI courts will pay for themselves. He said he expects a large reduction in recidivism rates and the program is designed to keep offenders out of court and able to work and be productive again. “We would have clean babies, people who can get off welfare and go to work, children in foster homes returned to parents, and lives saved,” he said.
A Georgia study suggests there will be fewer arrests and re-arrests. He said present programs include treatment, but that does not go far enough. “The combination of court and treatment has the power to make people do things and even keep them in treatment longer if they are not ready,” Bowler said.
Training will continue as the judges work with other court and county officials and get the word out.
“They will be talking to police, hospital, village and city officials. They can all make a difference,” Bowler said.
He said the program needs the community.
When the participants are no longer drinking, they may need clothes or help with literacy to get jobs and assistance with child care, and he said churches and others can become involved.
“The judges are putting in extra effort on this program because they care about their people and see daily the effects of reoccurring drinking and driving. There have been other regional courts before, but not DWI courts. This is unique and can make a difference,” he concluded.