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Essex County to add victim impact panels

ELIZABETHTOWN - Drunk driving offenders in Essex County will soon be hearing a hard-hitting message closer to home.

Essex County District Attorney Kristy Sprague spoke at the county's Finance Committee meeting March 15 and said she is working with other departments to start organizing DWI victim impact panels in Essex County.

Sprague said she expressed concern to officials in the county's STOP DWI program about the absence of victim impact panels shortly after being sworn in as District Attorney in January.

Victim impact panels are often prescribed as part of sentences for driving while intoxicated and driving while ability impaired. Offenders are required to sit in on two hour sessions where a panel of victims, their families, emergency responders and remorseful past offenders share their stories.

Those assigned to attend a victim impact panel are required to have their blood alcohol levels checked with a breathalizer test on arrival. If they are intoxicated, they risk jail time for contempt of court.

"I think it's a great program; one I've been used to having in Clinton County for the past 10 years," said Sprague. "We're a little behind the eight ball."

Essex County has never offered victim impact panels. Instead, DWI and DWAI offenders in Essex County must attend in another county. A $25 fee they are required to pay is surrendered to the county where they attend the program.

Holding the panels regularly in Essex County would allow for those fees to stay local, bringing an additional $5,000 to $7,000 into county coffers each year, Sprague estimated. It would also make attending them more feasible for offenders.

"We want to keep the revenue here," said Sprague.

Working in concert with Essex County STOP DWI, Sprague is hopeful the program could be up and running by June.

Joe Provoncha is Essex County's STOP DWI coordinator. He said his department would be doing much of the legwork; coordinating each panel, arranging for a sheriff's deputy's presence and notifying attendees.

"The need wasn't there [before]," said Provoncha, "but the need is there now. There's enough people now that can take advantage of it."

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