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Our View: OWI court helps graduates break cycle

12:37 PM, Jul. 23, 2013  |  Comments
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The most unnatural thing in the world for an alcoholic to do is not drink.

After decades spent inside a bottle, an alcoholic's mind and body respond to almost every life event with the same impulse: Drink.

The kids are acting up. The boss is a pain. The dog died. The dog didn't die. The sun rose. All seem like good reasons.

That's what makes Donna Brown's story so remarkable. As recounted on this page Sunday, Brown is among the first graduates of Marathon County's OWI court and she's been clean and sober for two years.

Brown, who was raised by foster parents who owned a tavern, landed in the OWI court program, which involves intensive supervision and a series of penalties and rewards for bad and good behavior, after being arrested for drunken driving.

Not once. Not twice. Five times, which would seem sufficient evidence for most people that her drinking no longer was recreational fun. It had become a disease.

For decades, the criminal justice system's treatment for that disease was to throw people like Brown into prison, where they sat for years and emerged essentially the same people they were when they went in: alcoholics who had no training or treatment to help them survive in the real world.

So when they got out and the dog died, they drank. When the kids acted up, they drank. When the sun came up, they drank.

Sooner or later they ended up arrested again - or worse, dead on the side of the road, or arrested, this time, for a crash that killed someone else - and the cycle began again. Back to court, back to prison, back out, back to the bottle.

It has been a spectacularly expensive failure. Warehousing a single prisoner in a Wisconsin prison costs roughly $38,000 a year, according to a 2010 study by the Vera Institute of Justice, and inmates have almost no incentive to change their ways while inside.

OWI courts are intended to address both those issues. They are far cheaper than prison - all that is involved is the time of judges, treatment experts and other alcoholics - and they offer repeat offenders real motivation to change. If they drink again while in the program, they can be sentenced to brief periods of jail and ultimately to the prison terms they faced originally.

If they stay off the sauce, they get more freedom.

And if, like Brown, they succeed, they get new lives.

It's not an easy life. Brown works two part-time jobs, barely scraping by as she tries to earn a degree and take the next step forward. And around every corner lurks that bottle, calling to her. Every day can be a struggle.

Not everyone makes it. Marathon County's OWI court is so new that it doesn't yet have meaningful data on how many participants fail and how many are sober after a year.

The successes come only after a great deal of effort and no small amount of compassion - from judges Jill Falstad and Greg Huber, from the counselors who work with the offenders, from offenders who help one another and from fellow alcoholics who share their sobriety with newcomers.

It is not easy. But it works. And every success saves taxpayers money - and, better, it saves lives.

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