MONROE — In October 2010, Pam Mitchum’s world fell apart. She committed her fifth DWI offense and was ordered to attend the Union County DWI Treatment Court in the spring.
“I thought I was going back to jail,” Mitchum said. “I knew I was an alcoholic, but I didn’t have a solution to the problem.”
At a random license check, Mitchum was asked to take a breathalyzer test. With her blood alcohol level barely above the .08 limit, she was arrested on the spot. But because her level was much lower than it had been during previous arrests, Mitchum was fully aware of the experience for the first time.
“That’s when it really hit home for me,” she said. “I had been through jail, institutions, and death was my last choice. If I didn’t work that program, it would be my last chance.”
One year after entering the program, Mitchum is celebrating 13 months of sobriety.
Mitchum is one of six who have graduated from Union County’s DWI Treatment Court program. Founded in October 2010, the program offers an alternative to jail time for certain convicted DWI defendants.
Union County is one of very few counties in the state that offer such a program. According to national studies, treatment courts have successfully lowered the number of repeat DWI offenses.
“That’s our hope, in Union County, to offer a safer environment and a way for people to break free from their addictions,” drug court coordinator Katie Walter said.
The DWI Treatment Court provides a chance for repeat offenders to have prison time suspended in exchange for extensive treatment that teaches coping skills for living everyday life without alcohol. The program takes at least one year to complete, and all candidates must show a substance abuse handicap to be considered.
“It’s rare that somebody has multiple DWIs and there’s not a (substance abuse) problem there,” Walter said.
Participants in the program go through a series of intense treatment requirements and probation. The county orders the defendants to attend an intensive outpatient treatment program three times a week and a community support group twice a week, and provide proof of attendance. Over time, the number of treatment days required decreases, and the number of community support group meetings increases.
Random drug screenings are performed at least once a week. In addition, defendants must appear at a special court session every other week, report their progress to the judge and meet with one of three local attorneys who donate their time to the program.
“The judge speaks directly to participants,” Walter said. “It’s a very unique process.”
If a defendant misses treatment sessions or community support group meetings, breaks curfew, tests positive for drug use or refuses to appear in court, he or she is excluded from the program, and the prison time is no longer suspended.
At first, Mitchum was put off by all the rules and regulations of the program.
But her mother was ill, and Mitchum didn’t want jail time or alcoholism to get in the way of care-giving.
“I realized at that point I could not go to jail and leave my mother,” she said.
About 60 days into the program, Mitchum, who had lost all her spiritual beliefs and felt “dead inside,” was coming back to life, and was able to reunite with her estranged daughter and grandson.
“It’s wonderful when you’re able to feel again,” Mitchum said.
The treatment court was funded for three years, thanks to a $350,000 grant from the Bureau of Justice. But because the grant is nonrenewable and ends in October 2013, the county is already seeking ways of raising money to sustain the program.
“Substance abuse treatment isn’t cheap by any means, and a lot of funding for substance abuse treatment has been cut,” Walter said.
The county is embarking on its first attempt to raise seed money for the program. In support of the DWI Treatment Court, the county will host a hot dog fundraiser on Thursday, April 26, from 11:30 a.m. to 1:30 p.m. in the jury assembly room of the Union County Judicial Center. Food costs $5 and is available for dine-in or takeout. Deliveries will be made for 10 or more plates.
Mitchum has already begun selling tickets, eager to give back to the program that “saved” her life.
“People need to realize (this program is) a privilege,” she said. “They’re giving you a chance to better yourself. So many counties don’t have something like this.”
Thanks to the program and support from people like Walter, Mitchum stayed sober in spite of the deaths of both of her parents in November.
“I’m so grateful that I was sober when I lost both of my parents,” she said. “It was almost like they held on to see I was going to be okay. Now, I don’t let anything jeopardize my sobriety.”