Fate of Travis Co. DWI Court in limbo after state grant revoked

DWI Court Judge Elisabeth Earle (KXAN Photo)
DWI Court Judge Elisabeth Earle (KXAN Photo)

AUSTIN (KXAN) — Nine people graduated from Travis County’s Adult Probation DWI Court Tuesday night, after completing the year-long program. In all, nearly 350 participants have completed the program successfully.

However, the fate of the DWI court remains unknown, after Gov. Greg Abbott revoked the grant money used to fund it.

The nearly $260,000 grant started Sept. 1, 2016 and is now set to end on Aug. 31, 2017.

“Taking something like this away, just by not doing it is problematic because we’re dealing with more than just one issue. We’re dealing with a holistic approach, hoping that that offender never comes back in court again,” said Judge Elisabeth Earle, who presides over Travis County Court at Law #7 and the DWI Court.

Judge Earle has presided over the DWI Court since it began in 2008.

The program is targeted to people who have more than one DWI charge, subsequent and multiple offenders. It is standard that only Class B misdemeanor offenders are eligible to participate. For these charges, the maximum jail time is only a year with maximum probation time being two years.

“That’s someone who’s crying for help — crying for treatment. Those are people who need to have treatment,” said Judge Earle. “We realized that we were not providing them the treatment that they needed in a very intensive, outpatient program with a court component added to it.”

The court incorporates standard legal requirements of alcohol probation, including breathalyzers, drug screen monitoring, and meeting with probation officers, alongside intensive treatment that includes individual and group counseling sessions. The treatment portion of the program, Earle says, is what makes it successful.

“If you don’t get the treatment that you need, then there’s no telling what could happen to that person, or if they’re behind the wheel,” said Earle. “We want to give them the tools that they will never be back in our court systems again.”

New data, set to be released on Friday, finds that the program is successful. According to DWI Court data for Fiscal Years 2012 – 2014, only three percent of graduates re-offend within two years. The number of DWI Court graduates who re-offend went down the two years prior, from six percent in both FY 2012 and FY 2013.

On average, the graduation rate of the program is 88 percent. In FY 2012 and FY 2013, it was 89.3 percent. In FY 2014, the graduation rate was 88.4 percent, and in FY 2015, the rate was 86.8 percent.

“The re-offending of people out there on regular probation is so much higher,” said Earle. “Of the people who graduate this program successfully, less than five percent ever re-offend.”

Current participants in the program tell KXAN News their experience has been life-changing.

Ben Metcalfe is currently participating in Travis County's DWI Court. (KXAN Photo/Juan Salinas)
Ben Metcalfe is currently participating in Travis County’s DWI Court. (KXAN Photo/Juan Salinas)

“I got my first DWI and I went in jail and was out the next day. Didn’t feel it. It didn’t sink in,” said Ben Metcalfe, 24. “I felt like I got away with it basically. I’ll pay some fines, go through and if I have to do some classes, I got away with it. I’m good. I kept drinking, didn’t think I had a problem.”

Two months later, Metcalfe received his second DWI.

“I went to jail, got out maybe two days later. I was bailed out,” said Metcalfe. “It wasn’t until I got my public intoxication [on] Dec. 24. It was Christmas Eve and I was so intoxicated that I was having thoughts of suicide.”

That’s when Metcalfe says he needed to make some changes in his life. His attorney told him about the DWI Court probation program.

“It’s just by the grace of God. It’s a miracle I got into this program and was given this opportunity to be better — to be a better person for myself and for society,” said Metcalfe. “I’m going to go back to school. I’m going to get my Bachelor’s in mechanical engineering. That’s what I want to do and know I can do it because of this program.”

Jeremy Madrid is also a current DWI Court participant. At 38 years old, Madrid says he received a couple of DWIs in his early twenties.

“Even though I knew I was going to get in more trouble, because of a DWI that didn’t seem to curve my behavior because I wasn’t changing, I was just being punished,” said Madrid.

Last year, he received another.

Jeremy Madrid is currently participating in Travis County's DWI Court. (KXAN Photo/Juan Salinas)
Jeremy Madrid is currently participating in Travis County’s DWI Court. (KXAN Photo/Juan Salinas)

“I was lucky to get in the program. I think these are the kind of programs that prevent DWIs simply because of the mentality that punishment doesn’t solve problems and education does,” said Madrid. “The more that I’ve learned about myself going through this program, I can almost ironically say this might’ve been the best thing that’s ever happened to me.”

Madrid says it’s the education he’s gotten in the treatment program that has helped him to make better decisions.

“[The program] gives me the tools to be able to deal with the problems I’ve dealt with in the past instead of running to alcohol. Change my train of thought, change my thought processes, make better decisions,” said Madrid. “I absolutely believe that if there were programs like this in place when I had received my first DWI or my second DWI, I wouldn’t be in this situation right now.”

Madrid and his wife are now expecting their first child.

“Who [would I be if] I didn’t have access to these resources? I would just be the same old Jeremy doing the reckless behavior that I’ve always done in the past.”

Madrid’s goal? His sobriety.

Court participant Justin Smith, 38, says he struggled for nearly 20 years with substance abuse and was arrested. Most recently, he was pulled over for a DWI.

Justin Smith is currently participating in Travis County's DWI Court. (KXAN Photo/Juan Salinas)
Justin Smith is currently participating in Travis County’s DWI Court. (KXAN Photo/Juan Salinas)

For Smith and his peers, the traditional legal system wasn’t working.

“It hadn’t done anything to deter my behaviors, or the cycle of my substance abuse,” he said. “When basically I finished my punishment, I just went straight back to doing what I was doing.”

Smith says the DWI Court program has changed his life.

“Through tools with this program, through education, and a lot of work on my own outside of class on the foundations that were built in the groups, I’ve rediscovered [myself].”

Smith says he thought he was a lost cause. “I’m in a situation right now where I have the reinforcement from the other people in my group, from the trained counselors, and from the judge.”

He continued, “You made mistakes, but you are a good person and you can change.”

Cutting the program, Smith says, is a big step backward.

“I think it’s a shame for the public. They’d be missing out on amazing opportunity for a lot of amazing people — changing their lives and making a further impact,” said Smith.

His peers agree.

“I think it’s an absolute travesty. These kinds of programs are the ones that educate people that deter DWIs to help people, [and] help society,” said Mardrid.

“Don’t get rid of this program. It’s the best thing that could’ve ever happened to me. It saved my life,” said Metcalfe. “You can’t just take something from society that changes society for the better. Why would you take something away that only helps?”

By agreeing to participate in the program, participants agree to a conviction. The program is comprised of checks and balances to ensure that if participants fail to meet the requirements, the judge will implement punishment, through standard protocols.

The DWI Court is supported by Mothers Against Drunk Drivers, or MADD.

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