IN DEPTH: Treatment courts give addicts a second chance
Cory Breunig may hold the record for the highest number of counts for bail jumping in Sauk County. It’s not something he’s proud of, but at the time Breunig was addicted to alcohol and used drugs recreationally. As part of his bond condition, Breunig was required to do a breathalyzer test every day at 8 a.m. and 8 p.m.
“I tried to get around it by drinking right after the test,” Breunig said. “So when it was time to do the second test it wouldn’t show up.”
He carried on like that for a while, but eventually it caught up with him. After driving a friend home from a bar in her vehicle one night, Breunig got pulled over. Faced with a felony OWI charge and a litany of bail jumping charges, Breunig was out of options.
Breunig was one of over 20 million people over age 12 in the U.S. in 2011 who lived with addiction, according to the Delphi Behavioral Health Group, a member of the National Addiction Treatment Network.
Over three million of those individuals sought help in 2011, according to Delphi’s findings. Although it was years later, Breunig got help, he’s proud to say he’s been sober for almost a year. It was through the Sauk County Adult Treatment Court that Breunig was given another chance and a new lease on life.
A different court
Since its inception in 2016, the Sauk County Adult Treatment Court has provided services to 39 individuals, Sauk County Criminal Justice Coordinator Regina Baldwin said. It is a voluntary program offered to individuals convicted of an offense prior to beginning the program and lasts anywhere from 18-24 months, depending on the participant’s progress.
The program is intended to give individuals living with addiction the chance to change their life and become drug and alcohol free. According to Sauk County’s website, the program assists participants with a comprehensive assessment and treatment plan for substance abuse and mental health diagnosis, intensive supervision, random drug and breath testing, regular court appearances, immediate sanctions and incentives in response to behavior.
In Judge Michael Screnock’s courtroom Nov. 30, treatment court proceedings have begun. One by one the participants answer questions about their program.
Most admit they’ve struggled. Some have successfully made it through the month remaining sober. They are applauded, praised and are given a friendly reminder not to become complacent. A few have succumbed to life’s stresses and fed their craving. Screnock doesn’t condemn them. He inquires what lead to their slip up and asks them how they will plan ahead for future situations. He might recommend reaching out for more support or attend more meetings. The individual isn’t automatically kicked out of the program or given a sanction. Screnock reminds them they have the support and tools and knowledge to keep going.
In Judge Todd Hepler’s courtroom in Portage, it’s more of the same. Someone used, but was honest and admitted it.
“Ultimately, you’re not hurting us, you’re hurting yourself,” he tells the participant. “We can’t help unless we know what’s going on.”
Seven individuals have graduated from the Sauk County Treatment Court program so far. Some people have not been successful, but there are many more are currently participating in the program.
“It’s still really new,” Baldwin said. “And there are still some misunderstandings about how the program works and how we define success.”
She said many people believe for the program to be successful, treatment court participants must be “cured” of their addiction.
“Our top goal is for individuals to attain and maintain sobriety,” she said. “But what we measure in terms of success is recidivism, which is a conviction of a new criminal offense after completion of the program. All seven of our graduates are in various stages of their sobriety. Some have reached six months and others have reached 24 months post-graduation. So far, the recidivism rate for our graduates is zero percent.”
For those who haven’t been able to graduate, Baldwin doesn’t consider it a loss.
“Simply because someone wasn’t successful or doesn’t graduate doesn’t mean they haven’t gained anything,” Baldwin said. “They’ve come out of it with tools that they will be able to use along their journey to make improvements.”
Breunig’s journey to sobriety was not easy and not successful — at first. It took the probable eight-year prison sentence for Breunig to come to terms with his addiction.
“I was drinking a 12-pack and a bottle of Jack every day for many years,” Breunig said. “I was a burden for a long time.”
At the time of his conviction, Sauk County hadn’t yet added alcohol treatment to its drug treatment court. Once Breunig agreed to serve six months in the Sauk County Jail and another five years of probation, he was given the OK to participate in the county’s treatment court program. Breunig became the OWI program’s first participant. He started in August.
“It’s been a lot, but it’s better than prison,” Breunig said. “And it turns out it’s been really good for me.”
Portage resident Michael Memmel was lying on the concrete floor in the Columbia County Jail when he’d had enough. Arrested Jan. 5, 2016, Memmel was serving eight months for another conviction of criminal mischief. Tired of sleeping in other people’s homes and feeling lonely and sad, he turned to religion for comfort.
“That was a major changing point for me in my life,” Memmel said. “While lying on that floor I accepted the Lord Jesus Christ into my life. That’s what saved me. And that’s why I’m here right now.”
That and an offer to participate in Columbia County’s Drug Treatment Court are the reasons he has had a stable job for over a year and recently obtained his own place.
“I haven’t had my own place for years,” Memmel said. “It’s quite an accomplishment for me.”
Memmel just spent his first Thanksgiving with his family in more time than he remembers. He’s working on repairing relationships, maintaining sobriety and getting his driver’s license back.
The January, 2016 arrest wasn’t the first time Memmel tangled with the law or had been to rehab for his addiction. He started using opiates in 1989, introduced to them by his former wife.
“I started out with pills,” Memmel said. “I became a major drug and doctor seeker. I learned a lot of ways to get prescriptions.”
Raised by an alcoholic father who was also a bar owner, Memmel said he got “hammered” at nine years old. It was so bad he had to receive medical treatment.
“I started using (drugs) when I was in my teens,” Memmel said. “I was smoking pot in school and eventually quit school because all I wanted to do was get high. Since then I’ve tried every kind of drug there is.”
Finding the right people
Judge Todd Hepler had no intention of starting up a treatment court when he started with Columbia County Court system in 2015. But he quickly changed his mind when he saw how many individuals were affected by addiction.
“I was astounded by the number of drug-related cases in Columbia County,” Hepler said. “It really bothered me. I realized we can’t arrest our way out of the situation.”
Once Hepler got buy-in from other departments and stakeholders, they started searching for grants.
Treatment court participants must meet several guidelines in order to be accepted.
“Because of our restrictions, we can’t accept someone who has committed a violent offense,” Hepler said. “They have to have a demonstrated substance abuse issue and be facing at least two years of imprisonment.”
Columbia County’s Treatment Court has separate programs for drug and alcohol cases and the program term is from 18-24 months.
“We don’t have a graduate yet,” Hepler said. “But we have some headed in that direction.”
While the program is still too new to have a graduate, Hepler said research shows treatment programs are working.
Hepler said treatment programs are largely successful because of the supervision participants get as well as the tools they learn to cope later when they are on their own.
Juneau County District Attorney Ken Hamm said prosecutors have few options for dealing with addiction-related crimes.
“Our hands are tied,” Hamm said. “We have the option of sending someone to jail for a year. It’s always an option, but the problem is you get warehoused. Then you get out and you are with the same social circle.”
Hamm said another option is to send an addict through probation, but that has stretched the probation department thin.
“And there’s prison,” Hamm said. “That’s not something we necessarily want to do, but it is better than having the individual overdose. And there is some treatment available there.”
But the Department of Corrections is also spread thin handling drug-related crimes.
“You’d probably get wait listed and warehoused,” Hamm said. “None of these options is really perfect.”
Hamm now has people on-board with establishing a treatment court in Juneau County, but it has a long way to go. Hamm said a group of stakeholders meets regularly to define aspects for a future treatment program and also has to be able to fund it.
“I think drug court is valuable in that it allows individuals to get treatment in the community and have that extra degree of oversight,” Hamm said. “It gets the community involved and provides the individual with a greater network to reach out to. That’s why we want to bring drug court to Juneau County.”
Except for a slip up with a shot of whiskey in September, Memmel has been drug and alcohol free since January, 2017 — the longest time he’s been sober since he was a teenager. Memmel is now 62. During treatment court on Nov. 27, he was applauded for his efforts.
“I know drug court has been good for me,” Memmel said. “Everyone has been very supportive. It focuses on the present and the future, not on your past. And that has made me stronger.”
For Breunig, his first setback came while granted Huber while in jail. He was cleared to work but had to report back to jail immediately after his shift.
“I screwed that up,” Breunig said. “I was caught drinking at work.”
Breunig also drank and took cocaine right after he served his jail time. Breunig said he was feeling the stress of treatment court before him and caved into his cravings.
“It was different that time though,” Breunig said. “I didn’t enjoy it. Then I got worried I’d be kicked out of the program before even starting it.”
After some soul-searching, Breunig called a friend and mentor who had successfully remained sober for over five years. He gave him some good advice.
“He told me just to be honest and tell them what I did,” Breunig said. “It really kicked me in the ass. When I was in jail I decided I didn’t belong there. I knew I had more to offer and that I could be a good member of society. I finally accepted this is how things have to be for me. I have to live sober.”
When he looks back on his journey, Breunig acknowledged he doesn’t have as many friends as he used to. Many still drink or use drugs, and Breunig is trying hard to avoid that lifestyle.
Breunig said he knows himself better now and has the tools to deal with challenges in a healthy way.
“I’m not positive, but I have a feeling if I picked up a beer I’d keep drinking and it would never be enough,” Breunig said. “But now I don’t have a doubt in my mind I’m going to do it. I’m going to stay sober.”
Breunig said the program isn’t easy and sometimes it’s aggravating to have to run things past his probation officer, such as getting permission to go shopping in Madison on Black Friday. He has to call in every morning to see whether he has to provide a urine sample. But Breunig said his sobriety is worth the trouble.
“I got back into art and now I meditate,” Breunig said. “I used to think it was dumb, but I do it every day now. And I know I have to take one day at a time. Even if my day was bad, I tell myself, ‘You were sober today’. I always used to have a reason to drink. Now I have reasons to stay sober. And I’m really proud of myself.”