Muskegon County Sobriety Court to receive boost from stimulus grant

By Diana L. Coleman

Legal News

Federal stimulus dollars will be a huge benefit to Muskegon County's Sobriety Court. The Sobriety Court has been granted $500,000, which will be sent directly to Muskegon County to be used in 2010 and 2011. The grant will allow the court to hire two new staff members and increase the hours of an existing staff member, add a full-time probation officer dedicated to the program, and increase the hours of the surveillance officer.

Currently, the program has one case manager, contracted services from West Michigan Therapy, and the use of a District Court probation officer on a part-time basis. Ron Malone, Chief Probation Officer, also provides general oversight of the program.

The program, established in Muskegon County in 2005 as a pilot program, has assisted many offenders in getting their lives on track. The program is an opt-in or an opt-out program. If offered to offenders, they can enter the program or take the alternative jail sentence.

Sobriety Court replaces traditional punishment for drunken drivers. The program is for a period of eighteen months. The participant receives counseling, therapy, close monitoring, and close supervision of progress by the Judge. Participants have to make frequent urine test drops and officers stop in at the person's home or bars they know they used to frequent.

Judge Andrew J. Wierengo, III, said, "I really wasn't on board for this program when it was in the planning stages." He explained that originally when the program was being discussed for Muskegon County, he was not the one to be involved. However, due to health issues of the judge planning to attend training, Wierengo and Malone traveled to Georgia for federal training for the sobriety court. "After the training sessions," said Wierengo, "Ron told me he thought this program could work."

In October 2005 the pilot program was launched and did well. Wierengo and Malone have since attended additional federal training in Lansing and Phoenix.

The program receives funding from the federal highway-safety grant with the condition that the court also include felonies. The program's funding, which is channeled through the State, has been reduced by original amounts. The monies granted under the Reinvestment and Recovery Act will give the program new life and the ability to expand and better assist those in the program. Wierengo said, "The grant will allow us to double the number of people in the program."

Muskegon County's Sobriety Court was selected favorably over twenty-two other sobriety courts in a State Court Administrative Office (SCAO)-based Statewide Program Specific Comparison Report for FY 2009 Michigan Drug Court Grant Program. This report was available at the time of application for the federal stimulus grant and was able to be included. "We are really proud of our Sobriety Court," said Wierengo.

The SCAO report found that Muskegon County's program participants spent the most days in the program and the most days in each phase. Muskegon had the most treatment contact hours with 117 hours per participant compared to 69 contact hours in all other sobriety courts. While 94% of participants statewide avoided re-arrest within their first 24 months of program participation, the 60th District Court's program reported 100% of its participants avoiding re-arrest while participating in the program.

Muskegon's program also had approximately double the statewide number of drug court reviews. Statewide average was 13 review hearings, while Muskegon averaged just over 25 review hearings.

The requirements for the program are that the person is a Muskegon County resident, has no record of assault background, and it must be a second offense or a history of multiple minor in possession charges.

There are two sobriety groups in district court. One group is under Judge Harold Closz. Judge Wierengo handles the second misdemeanor group and also the felony group. "If I did not think the program had great benefit," said Wierengo, "we would not have continued. We look at a person's attitude to see if they have a problem they are willing to admit and address now and get some assistance with their alcohol abuse."

The participants receive intensive counseling; the courts try to place them with help in areas of homelessness, nutrition, and other issues they may be facing that contribute to the repeated use of alcohol. "We try to show them we are here to support them and we are not the 'bad guy.' The participants are encouraged to continue the program and given small incentives if they are doing well," said Wierengo. "There are also sanctions for those who are not following the program. They begin to understand that we are trying to help and form a connection with the Judge over their group. It gives them a sense of empowerment when the Judge gets selectively involved. They hate our guts when we put them in jail, but most will thank us for the opportunity to take part in the program."

It seems clear from the SCAO report that Muskegon County's Sobriety Court is of great benefit to the community and the program participants; and the federal stimulus grant will allow the program to continue and expand to help more county residents get their lives on track.

Published: Fri, Dec 4, 2009