Sobriety Court expanding into Wexford County

A northern Michigan Sobriety Court is expanding into Wexford County by the end of the year.

A popular court program aimed at curbing drunk drivers is coming to Wexford County.

Sobriety court has been operating in other northern Michigan counties for years, but does it work? One judge who's been a proponent of sobriety court since 2001 says, emphatically, yes.

Historically, when someone is arrested for driving drunk, jail time was a forgone conclusion; especially if it was a second or third offense. With sobriety court, the defendant can choose to participate in an intensive program designed to change their behavior - not just keep them off the road.

Judge Mike Haley says, "We've had, probably, a thousand people go through the program and graduate. And the data shows that the repeat offender rate is way down."

86th district court judge Michael Haley has been in charge of the sobriety court in Antrim, Grand Traverse, and Leelanau counties since 2001. In fact, he was the driving force to bring the program to northern Michigan, and he says it has proven itself as a program that works.

Judge Haley says, "Someone that goes through our program is about ten times less likely to be coming back again for another drunk driving offense. So, it's worked out great."

Due in part to the success of Judge Haley's program and similar programs elsewhere, earlier this year the state awarded grants to start regional sobriety courts statewide: three in the Lower Peninsula and one in the Upper Peninsula.

The northern Michigan court is already expanding to include Wexford County. Ultimately, the goal is to have a court in every county.

Judge Audrey Van Alst will become the sobriety court judge for Wexford and Missaukee counties.

Judge Audrey Van Alst says, "I believe there is a need because we have qualifying offenders. We have a pool to draw from. And I'm a supporter of this program because I believe it works."

Defendants who volunteer for the 18-24 month program must take daily breath tests, have a breathalyzer installed on their car's ignition, and receive treatment for substance abuse. In exchange, the criminal charges are reduced and jail time could be eliminated.

Judge Van Alst says, "I don't think it's a hard sell. Everyone is interested in the end goal which is to have less repeat offenders."

Judge Haley adds that the success of the program depends on prosecutors, defense attorneys, drug treatment representatives and probation officers working together on behalf of the participant. He says it's about changing behavior, not merely about doling-out punishment.

The current state grants will continue funding the regional sobriety courts through 2016.