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“It’s a no brainer,” proposed bill making DUI punishment more convenient blasted by victims’ families

OKLAHOMA CITY - A new bill aims to create a new option for those busted for driving under the influence. But some who have been directly affected by DUI wrecks aren't on board.

Currently, everyone convicted of driving under the influence of drugs or alcohol has to attend an in-person victims impact panel. The panels usually last 1-2 hours, where offenders give their undivided attention to the speakers. Those speakers are usually the family members of deceased victims of DUI wrecks, people once convicted of DUI, or first responders who can share their experiences.

"Senate Bill 230 and House Bill 1970 would both make victims impact panels acceptable to do online," explained Jessi Romero, executive director of Victims Impact Panel of Oklahoma.

The change, should it become law, gives DUI offenders the option of watching a four-hour video, provided by Florida-based company You Impact, instead of having to attend in person.  But Romero, and speakers who lost loved ones to DUI wrecks, tell News 4 they feel that digital option won't have the same impact as the in-person sessions.

"For them to look me in the face, and engage, make eye contact with me as I tell them about how my brother died, and how it affects my family, I think that is much more impactful than maybe watching a video," said Kandi Hoehner.

Her brother Keith was the passenger of an intoxicated driver. She says the car, driven by her brother's friend, veered across the median and the car was hit by a semi-truck. Her brother, she said, took the brunt of the impact and died. She shares her story countless times for the panels and says she cannot imagine a pre-recorded video being able to have the same effect.

"It's more like a movie. They're not real people because they're just on a video," Hoehner said of the prospect of the digital panels. "You don’t see [victims' relatives] tremble when they talk, you don’t hear their voice quiver."

She is one of many that questions whether there is any accountability measure to insure the offender actually watches the videos. But SB230 author Senator Stephanie Bice tells News 4 that You Impact has that covered.

"This online program is unique in that it is four segments, you may pause at the end of a segment. But during the segment there are pop ups to ensure you're listening," Sen. Bice said. She adds that You Impact's online sessions have 11 quizzes throughout to make sure the offender pays attention.

One of her constituents, Renee Jennings, lost her son Matthew a month after he graduated from high school. Jennings says the bill is a bad idea.

"I don’t know why it was brought in order to make the consequences of DUI easier," said Jennings. "Watching a video online on your phone while you’re multitasking and doing other things is not the same as looking a mother face-to-face, in the eye when she is pouring her heart out."

The advocates say they feel the online options will silence them and lead to recidivism because the offenders will not be directly interacting and engaging.

"I cannot bring my son back but I can save other mothers from becoming speaker for the panel, and I can only do that live," said Jennings.

But Sen. Bice says the intent of the bill is not to silence or invalidate the groups.

"This is just another option," she said. "We obviously want people to have programming, we want them to participate in these programs effectively. We also want victims to have their voices heard. We are in no way trying to eliminate the in person option.

She says the online offering can offer a more convenient option for offenders who lost their licenses due to their convictions.

"When you’ve lost your license, you're relying on someone else to get you to these programs, that can be a challenge for the people. Especially if you're working," said Bice.

But the speakers/advocates say the extra work it takes for offenders to attend in-person sessions shouldn't be eliminated for their convenience.

"It may be inconvenient to spend a few hours [at an in-person panel] but I feel like they’re probably spending less time at a panel than they spent the night they got drunk and drove home," said Hoehner.

"We cover the entire state of Oklahoma," said Romero. "There is no one in the state that cannot easily make it to a panel."

But Sen. Bice says not only is panel accessibility an issue in rural Oklahoma, she adds that the programs "vary wildly" from one organization to another.

Currently, in-person panels range from $40-$60. That cost is paid for by offenders, in addition to the court/legal fees they pay the state. Sen. Bice says that fee that You Impact's digital sessions will cost is still being negotiated, but they too, will be paid for directly by offenders. She says those convicted will have five days to watch the videos, and if they fail to do so within a specified timeframe they will face punishment. She adds that You Impact covers the cost of the production of the videos.

The bills are being reviewed but haven't yet made it to floors of the Senate or the House. DUI victims advocates say they have been meeting with committees and legislative and legal leaders to urge them not to support the bills.

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