Tarrant County program focuses on alcoholism, not punishment

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by STEVE STOLER

WFAA

Posted on December 17, 2012 at 7:00 PM

Updated Monday, Dec 17 at 8:01 PM

FORT WORTH — It's the case that put drunk driving in the spotlight for the past week: Dallas Cowboys player Josh Brent is facing charges for the crash that killed his teammate, Jerry Brown Jr. Brent's trial is pending.

But for hundreds of convicted drunk drivers in Tarrant County, a DWI conviction is not an automatic jail sentence. A program is designed to rehabilitate offenders, instead of punishing them.

It's called the Felony Alcohol Intervention Program (FAIP). It gives people convicted of multiple DWIs a choice: Either go to prison or accept an intense four-year probation designed to change their lives.

John Knapp spent the last decade between prison and life on parole or probation. He said Tarrant County's FAIP saved him by offering an alcohol-free life.

"I hit a telephone pole," Knapp said. "It was pretty bad. It could have killed me or my wife. But we came out of it alive, thank God."

Police arrested Allen Dixon for his third DWI after he passed out in a fast food drive-thru. Dixon — like Knapp — was accepted into the four-year program. Both men graduated on Monday.

"After being in here four years, getting married and having a baby, life is a whole lot more meaningful now," an emotional Dixon told the graduation attendees.

The four-year program isn't easy. Program participants are required to spend 10 days in jail, take random urine and breath tests, intensive counseling and alcohol treatment, weekly court appearances and meetings with probation officers. They must also maintain full-time employment.

"A lot of people don't understand that when you're incarcerated and directly taken out of society, you don't get an opportunity to change your life, because you're just sitting in a cell," Knapp said. "There's no support. There's nobody there to help you."

The FAIP program is saving taxpayers millions of dollars. It costs $50 a day to house inmates in Texas prisons. Tarrant County's program costs $3 a day, about $250,000 a year.

"It's not that people drink and drive," said Judge Sharen Wilson, one of the founders of the DWI program. "It's that they drink and drive and hurt somebody. So until we break that cycle, then I think the cost is incalculable."

Judge Wilson said if the offenders violate any of the program's requirements, she has no problem sending them to prison. But this DWI program is the most successful probation program in Tarrant County.

Of the 261 offenders admitted into the program since 2006, only two percent of them have returned to prison.

E-mail sstoler@wfaa.com

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