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Stopping repeat offenders

Group aims to inform drivers about victims

Group aims to inform drivers about victims

July 15, 2004|by BRIAN SHAPPELL

shappell@herald-mail.com

Just more than a year ago, former Washington County Commissioner Ron Bowers was sentenced to 30 months probation after pleading guilty to a charge of driving under the influence of alcohol. Now, Bowers is leading a group trying to reduce the amount of people who repeat that offense.

He credits hearing the story of a victim injured in an alcohol-related crash as one of the most significant moments in his recovery.

Bowers, an admitted alcoholic, was appointed chairman of the advisory board to the Washington County Victim Impact Panel, which was formed this spring. The advisory board, designed to bolster the program serving those who have committed driving offenses while under the influence of drugs or alcohol, includes area residents and representatives from the Washington County Sheriff's Department, Health Department, State's Attorney's Office and the Maryland Department of Parole and Probation, among others.

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The Victim Impact Panel consists of victims of alcohol- and drug-related crashes and holds quarterly meetings for offenders. At those meetings, victims tell their often-harrowing stories of loss and suffering.

In October 2003, the panel was facing the possibility of stopping its efforts because of difficulty finding a place to consistently hold meetings. Bowers, who attended one of its meetings that month, and James Wolfensberger, of Parole and Probation, were among those who worked with various government agencies to keep the program afloat.

"I said we couldn't let it end because of the impact it has on people who attend," Bowers said.

Judges have the option to order an offender to attend as a condition of his or her parole.

"Our goal is to have every judge use it on the first offense, and it wouldn't hurt on the second and third offenses as a condition of probation," Bowers said.

Washington County Sheriff's Department Capt. Douglas Mullendore, the department's chief deputy, estimated judges from Washington County District Court put the condition on about 95 percent of cases, though there is less participation from judges in Circuit Court. Mullendore estimated there are about 700 cases annually in county courts dealing with driving offenses related to drugs and alcohol.

Mullendore said Bowers' prominent role in the group gives the program more credibility with people who are going through it because he "is someone who has walked the walk and talked the talk."

On Jan. 6, 2003, Sheriff's Department deputies found Bowers walking from an accident on Village Mill Drive and a state vehicle in a nearby stream.

Deputies said Bowers failed several sobriety tests and registered a .19 blood alcohol content. In Maryland, a driver with a 0.08 blood alcohol content is considered to be driving while intoxicated and a driver with a 0.06 blood alcohol content is considered driving under the influence.

Bowers was sentenced to 30 months probation and ordered to pay $225 in court fees and $250 in fines.

As a result, Bowers attended a Victim Impact Panel meeting in October 2003, where he met a victim, Terri Gable.

Gable, an advisory board member and a counselor at the Catoctin Counseling Center, said she was hit head-on by a drunken driver about 12 years ago while taking her 16-year-old son to a soccer game. Gable spent six weeks in a coma, five months in the hospital, needed to have her spleen and part of her lung removed, and sustained other injuries, including 11 broken ribs and a crushed heel, she said.

Gable said she and others who speak at the meetings do so to inform people, not to point a finger at them.

"It's not blaming or accusing or even angry. It gives the victims a face," she said. "Those offenders can see what they are doing, they are doing to someone."

Bowers said he was overwhelmed by her story and realized how irresponsible he was for drinking and driving. Her experience inspired him to seek support from local government and the public for the program.

"I had tears in my eyes while she was talking," he said.

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