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Drug Court: A chance to change

Any way you look at it, the St. Croix County Drug Court is a good deal and offers a real chance for those looking to break the cycle of substance abuse and criminal behavior.

The court has been in place since 2006. It provides individuals, male or female, who have been convicted of a felony for a drug- or alcohol-related offense and with a history of substance abuse and dependency, an opportunity to avoid a prison sentence by opting instead for an intensive treatment and rehabilitation plan that can take up to two years to successfully complete.

The option is not available to first-time offenders, to most violent offenders (some are considered on a case-by-case basis) or those with mental health issues. All participants must be referred to the program by the prosecuting attorney and defense counseling and presiding judge in their case, or by referral from a probation officer.

Participants must adhere to strict drug court requirements that include a weekly trip to drug court to check in with Judge Edward Vlack among others. Other members of the drug court team include coordinator Amber Perry, corrections officer Molly O’Keefe, assistant St. Croix County District Attorney Amber Hahn, public defender Liesl Nelson, AODA counselor John Ganong, and Sheriff’s Office investigators Brandie Hart and James Haefner.

While the drug court option can mean avoiding prison for the offender, it also represents a substantial savings to taxpayers according to Perry and Vlack. To send a man to prison in Wisconsin costs around $25,000 a year. It costs $34,000 for women. The cost of drug court runs on average about $2,200. What is saved when a participant gets clean and sober, gets a job and becomes a productive member of the community is on top of that.

“In dollars and cents for all concerned, it just makes sense,” said Perry, a social worker who has experience in AODA work and has been with the drug court since it began in St. Croix County.

The benefits of drug court over a prison sentence may seem obvious, but it should not be construed as an easy way out. The process is in four phases and there is strict accountability every step of the way. Failure to adhere to any of the requirements of the court can put prison back on the table but that’s not what drug court is about. A candidate must attend a drug court session to observe what goes on before being considered for the program. There is a $1,000 fee to be a drug court participant. Once in the program, participants must attend drug court every Wednesday morning where they talk with Vlack directly about the week they had and the one ahead.

In phase one, participants are required to go through intensive out-patient treatment, attend at least three Alcoholics Anonymous meetings a week and get a job working at least 20 hours a week. If they can’t get a job, they must do 20 or more hours of community service a week.

In phase two the work schedule increases to 30 hours of work or community service along with the three AA meetings and random drug testing up to three times a week. They are also required to see a mental health counselor, services that are provided through the county if the participant doesn’t have insurance. Court appearances are cut back to twice a month. That drops to once a month in phase three and once every two months in phase four.

Perry said that while adherence to the rules of drug court is strict, “it is hard to get kicked out.”

“We know there are going to be relapses, but we stress honesty. If they use but tell us about it right away and get back on the program, there are consequences but they don’t get kicked out. We want to know what happened and to see what can be done to avoid it happening again. We make a big deal out of honesty.”

The phases of the program have a lot of built-in consequences and incentives that are designed to reinforce positive behavior and move a participant to successfully complete drug court.

Participants speak with Vlack one-on-one in drug court. His inquiry extends beyond their addiction. He asks about their families, their connection to their children and other stresses in their lives.



The New Richmond Police Department, the New Richmond School District and the New Richmond Area Community Foundation are sponsoring a public forum in an effort to address the issue of illegal drugs and prescription drug abuse.

When: 6:30 p.m., Thursday, Feb. 20

Where: New Richmond High School auditorium

Speakers: — Karen Hale, mother of girl who died from heroin overdose

— Phil Drewiske, recovering heroin addict who lost a friend

— Jodi Skoog, Roger Drewiske and Greg Berg, family members affected by addiction

— A Westfields Hospital ER doctor

— New Richmond High School Principal Tom Wissink

— St. Croix County Circuit Court Judge Edward Vlack

— NRPD Detective Veronica Koehler

— St. Croix County Investigator James Mikla

— St. Croix County AODA Counselor Sara Sedahl

— Darren Hynek, Wisconsin Division of Criminal Investigation

Meg Heaton

Meg Heaton has been a reporter with the Hudson Star Observer since 1990. She has a bachelor’s degree in anthropology and Native American Studies from the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire.

(715) 808-8604