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OWI Court Graduation

As Judge Alan White, right, told visitors at Tuesday's OWI Treatment Court graduation, there are far more laughs there than at other hearings in Columbia County Circuit Court. The mood was especially light as program coordinator Connie Champion, left, presented certificates, challenge coins and personalized gifts to each of the four graduates, making 23 who have completed the program since its inception in April 2014.

In a deviation from the typical mood of courtroom participants, a group of people shared cupcakes and congratulations Tuesday as the Columbia County OWI Treatment Court celebrated the graduation of four participants.

“It’s not fun to send someone to jail, obviously,” said Judge Alan White, who returned for the event, despite his September retirement. “But it is fun to see the success at the end of the rainbow, so to speak, and success does come. You just have to keep at it.”

The event brought the total number of program graduates up to 23 since the program started in March 2014.

Defendants must be at least 17, a Columbia County resident, have been arrested with a blood-alcohol content of .15 or higher, and charged with either operating while intoxicated as a third or fourth offense, without any violent felony convictions.

The parameters are designed to invite defendants with the highest need for treatment who otherwise would have a high risk to re-offend.

When White retired, Judge W. Andrew Voigt began presiding over the OWI Court and Tuesday morning sat at his desk at the front of the courtroom. Much of the talking was done by White and program coordinator Connie Champion.

“I feel way more comfortable than the first one I did,” Champion said after the event, comparing it to when she took the position in April 2016. “I think it was mainly people getting to know me, and then when they realized I was there to support them and wasn’t there to punish them, it became more comfortable.”

As each graduate was introduced to the room, filled with family, county and law enforcement officials, Champion described something about their situation, such as one woman who had been stretched thin with two daughters in college, two near full-time jobs and volunteer work.

One man was brought into the program after being arrested with a preliminary breath test registering .316, nearly four times the legal limit to drive. On Tuesday, Champion began by saying, “He never wanted people to gush on him, but I’m going to.” She then described his work ethic, particularly in helping other people with construction and home repair projects. It elicited a “shucks” from the man.

The graduates, who each joined the program at some point in 2016, have had an average of 30 to 35 meetings with White and then Voigt, with discussion of treatment progress, including counseling meetings and updates about employment and home life.

Champion told the room about calling one participant at home wanting to be formal and respectful using his proper first name, even though no one would ever call him that, resulting in confusion when his wife answered.

As each of the candidates was congratulated on completing the program, Champion gave them a certificate, a commemorative challenge coin and a personalized gift, often reflecting hopes of continuing on their path pursuing passions outside the realm of alcohol.

“Since I’ve been in this kind of field, I have learned that if you give people the basis of what they need to do, they will eventually just do it on their own,” Champion said. “I think everyone can have something difficult in their lives, and then need a little help to get past it, and it is the same for people in this program.”