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On the horizon: OWI court for St. Croix County?

St. Croix could join a handful of Wisconsin counties to establish a court program specifically for intoxicated driving offenses.

Members of the county's Substance Abuse and Trauma Informed Care Subcommittee identified an OWI court as a top priority during its first meeting Wednesday, May 10.

The subcommittee, one of several under the county's Community Justice Collaborating Council, enlists citizen members and county officials to develop initiatives within St. Croix's criminal justice system.

Like the county's current drug court, the OWI court would aim to rehabilitate offenders who struggle with chemical dependency.

But St. Croix County circuit court judges say the new program should be established as a separate track within the drug court system to meet the specific needs associated with alcohol dependency.

Circiut Court Judge Scott Needham, who serves on the subcommittee, said several people with alcohol issues he has referred to drug court have been rejected because they did not meet the criteria.

"I think we're missing a segment of the population that has a tendency to represent significantly greater public safety risks than arguably those who we have in drug court," he said. "Any time you get behind the wheel, you've got a weapon in your hands. Impaired people under the influence of drugs don't represent a similar risk. I usually don't see them operating cars."

He also said that, unlike drug use, drinking is legal, but "we don't punish the drinking, we punish the choice to drive."

Pierce County officials made a similar distinction last April when Human Services board members approved a proposal to establish an OWI court like those currently operating in La Crosse, Monroe and Dane counties.

The state Department of Justice awarded Pierce County a Treatment Alternatives and Diversion grant in March that would invest an annual $247,000 over five years to establish the OWI court.

The program is expected to launch within the next year.

Other priorities

The effects of substance abuse on children were also among priorities subcommittee members outlined Tuesday.

Fred Johnson, county Health and Human Services director, said the number of children being removed from their families' care— particularly for drug-related reasons— continues to increase in counties throughout the region.

He called for an approach to the issue that implements best practices or evidence-based intervention to improve existing resources.

"The need for relative or alternate care increasing is not unusual in terms of what counties in the area are seeing," Johnson said. "But, is there something we should be focusing on there as far as a way to intervene with families and their children?"

Subcommittee members also prioritized implementing trauma informed care, which would aim to establish procedures that address issues without re-traumatizing individuals within the criminal justice system.

Subcommittee Chair Kirstin Deprey, who supervises substance abuse services for St. Croix County, said trauma-informed approaches would benefit not only offenders, but professionals within the criminal justice system as well.

"There's really a large movement towards trauma informed culture," she said. "It's recognizing the individuals and what they've been through, but it's also recognizing what providers have been through, law enforcement's been through, how our environment can impact people."