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County Connection: 'I’d still be on the streets if not for drug court'
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County Connection: 'I’d still be on the streets if not for drug court'

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A few years ago, Missy Bakkestuen was homeless and living out of a backpack. She’d crash on friends’ couches when she could and often got into trouble with the police.

Bakkestuen had a substance use disorder and had been in and out of trouble with the law for 10 years. But when an opportunity to participate in La Crosse County’s Drug Treatment Court was given to Bakkestuen, and she took it.

She graduated from the program in 2020 and hasn’t looked back since. Bakkestuen now manages Serenity Waters Spa in Holmen, and works for O’Brien Associates, helping to hire loss prevention agents for a major retail chain across two states.

“A very big part of me believes I’d still be on the streets if not for drug court,” Bakkestuen said recently.

Drug courts are specifically for persons with substance use disorders. They offer individuals the opportunity to enter long-term treatment and court supervision rather than receiving a jail sentence.

La Crosse County operates both drug and OWI (operating while intoxicated) courts that each year keep dozens of people out of jail and instead put them on a path to recovery. Bakkestuen is one of the program’s many success stories. She vividly remembers the day she graduated from drug court.

“When you have hated yourself for so many years, and that moment comes when you accomplish this big thing, this life-changing moment, it was unbelievable,” she said. “My family, everybody that was important to me was there and to get a pat on the back from all the people I thought were out to get me, the judge, police and probation officers, that was huge.”

The experience helped Bakkestuen see people who work in the criminal justice system she had long distrusted differently. Watching participants like Bakkestuen succeed also has an undeniable impact on the team of professionals who work for drug and OWI court programs.

“It makes the job extremely rewarding and I feel honored to be part of their recovery,” said Jodi Muth, La Crosse County Drug Treatment Court coordinator.

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Punishment alone doesn’t change behavior, Muth said, and by working together as a team with participants, drug treatment court can deliver better outcomes than the traditional court system. The programs show that with the right treatment and support, people are less likely to end up back in jail and struggling with their addiction.

“What people don’t see in the media is the trauma and hardships they have endured,” Muth said. “With support and encouragement from a team of varying disciplines, drug court gives people the opportunity to make the next best choice.”

Participants in the drug and OWI court programs don’t just work with people like Muth. They also attend support meetings with graduates of the program who serve as ambassadors. One of those ambassadors is Dean Ciokiewicz who came through the La Crosse County OWI Court in 2012 after multiple OWIs. He recalls the first time he stood in OWI court and immediately noticed a different atmosphere to the proceedings. “It wasn’t your regular smack the gavel, give them time, punitive type of thing,” Ciokiewicz said. “I got this overall feeling that they recognized that outside of my substance abuse, I really wasn’t a criminal.”

He had been an addict for 39 years, enduring cycles of guilt and shame that he only later connected to childhood trauma. Like Bakkestuen, he instinctively rebelled against authority figures, but he came through OWI court with a new perspective.

“I wouldn’t give a judge or a police officer or an attorney the time of day because in my mind they were against me,” he said. “By going and experiencing the OWI court system, I was able to witness that they’re doing this because they care, they don’t want to lock up an individual who if they could arrest their addiction is otherwise a pretty decent person with some issues to deal with.”

In addition to serving as an ambassador for OWI Court, Ciokiewicz works as Discipleship Recruitment Director at Next Chapter La Crosse. Next Chapter offers transitional housing and programming to people looking to break the cycle of incarceration and with substance abuse challenges.

The La Crosse County Drug Treatment Court has been in operation since 2002, while the OWI Court was launched in 2006. Both have helped to reduce recidivism locally, while helping hundreds of participants return to healthier lives.

Advocates point out that treatment courts also save money. A study by the National Institute of Justice, estimated that drug courts that reduced recidivism and other long-term program outcomes resulted in public savings of $6,744 on average per participant.

“OWI Court changed my life,” Ciokiewicz said, and now through his work as an ambassador for the program and with Next Chapter, he helps other on their journey to recovery.

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