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Waking Up Drunk Drivers

People convicted with DUI are now required to hear the stories of victims of drunk driving crashes.

In the early evening of Dec. 27, 1990, Cindy Kelly left her job at a bakery to pick up her younger twin siblings. After gathering the two 3-year-olds, Kelly's car was struck by a drunk driver and split in two. Her brother, Brian, did not survive the crash.

"As a new parent, I can hardly imagine what my parents went through when they got that phone call," said Kelly, a South Riding resident.

Kelly is one of a group of victims of drunk drivers who has begun using her story as a tool to educate Loudoun residents who have been convicted of driving under the influence.

Since January, people who were convicted of DUIs as first- or second-offenders, and those whose DUI sentences were reduced to reckless driving, are required to attend a victim impact panel featuring speakers like Kelly.

Kelly has attended every victim impact panel since its first meeting in March, and has made keeping her brother's memory alive a priority for the past 14 years. For Mildred Jenkins, however, whose car was crushed by a drunk driver on Aug. 10, 2002, last Monday's panel was the first time she had shared her story on a public stage.

Jenkins, a Front Royal resident, has had seven surgeries since the crash and has lost a good deal of mobility in her right arm. She struggled deeply with her loss of independence.

"When I went home, I couldn't so much as feed myself," she said. "For someone who had been so strong, that was the hardest part for me to accept."

Jenkins became involved with Mothers Against Drunk Driving a year ago. "After this happened, I went through so much depression, my lawyer said, 'Why don't you get involved in MADD,'" she said.

Both Kelly and Jenkins read confidently from typed pages before an audience of about 65 people, their voices shaking at a few poignant points. For the victims, speaking at the panel has become part of the healing process.

"It's cathartic. It's fulfilling," Kelly said. "It's all you can hope to do — one at a time."

FOR THE OFFENDERS, attending the victim impact panel fills a requirement of their sentence. But according to Michelle White, a criminal justice planner with the county, the emotional response has been strong.

"Ninety-five percent of the feedback is very positive," White said. "They really feel like they gained a lot of perspective outside of themselves."

Offenders fill out two surveys — one prior to hearing the victims speak, and one after. In addition, they write out a one-page response that will stay in their court files.

The panel is a kinder, gentler approach to drunk driving than a series of stiff DUI laws recently passed by the General Assembly. The new laws increase punishments for repeat offenders, who are the trickiest drunk drivers to reform, said Susan M. Cleveland, president of the Loudoun chapter of MADD.

"The hard-core drinkers, it's really hard to wake them up," Cleveland said.

In 2001, Loudoun County reported 222 alcohol-related crashes resulting in four fatalities, according to the Loudoun chapter of MADD. Nationally, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration reported 17,013 fatalities in alcohol-related crashes in 2003.

THE POPULATION of offenders at the victim impact panels includes just first- and second-offenders, a group more likely to response positively to the speakers' message than "career alcoholics," as Cleveland phrased it.

Eventually, White hopes to conduct a recidivism study to learn the true effectiveness of the panel. For the time being, however, the panel is a model for inspired restorative justice. Not only does it bring together victims and offenders in a mutually beneficial way, it costs next to nothing.

Besides the cost of printing up surveys and paying for a handful of employees' time, the panel is entirely volunteer-run. The panel has been held in county facilities from the Ashburn Library to its current locale, the Fire and Rescue Training Center in Leesburg. It will soon move again, to the Rust Library in Leesburg, when the training center closes for renovations.

Since the supply of drunk drivers is not dwindling — the Sheriff's Office reported 682 DUI arrests in 2003 — the panel's biggest challenge is simply gathering volunteers to speak. A partnership with MADD has yielded some results, and organizers have also opened it up to law enforcement and first responders.

"In their own way, they're victims as well," White said.

Julie Carlson, the county's victim witness program coordinator, stressed that speaking before offenders could be beneficial to victims.

"It can help them in the healing process," she said. "It can empower them because possibly something positive can come out of a tragic event."