In May 1999, the Fredericksburg General District Court held the first DUI court in Virginia.

Twenty years later, that first DUI court has grown to include the counties of Stafford, Spotsylvania and King George and has helped 4,400 participants work to reduce their dependency on alcohol and keep the area’s roads safer.

On Thursday, the Rappahannock Area Alcohol Safety Action Program, which coordinates DUI court along with the General District Courts in each locality, celebrated the court’s 20th anniversary with a ceremony at Fredericksburg General District Court.

“We believe in DUI court because we know it works,” said Charlene Motley, field services supervisor for the Virginia Alcohol Safety Action Program, which oversees the network of regional ASAPs.

Kevin Ortegel, RAASAP director, said people who go through DUI court are 19 times less likely to receive another DUI than offenders who don’t go through the program.

Anyone convicted of a DUI must go through one of the local ASAPs. Once there, they get classified as either requiring education about the dangers of drunken driving or requiring treatment for alcohol addiction.

Those requiring treatment are assessed by a substance abuse counselor and then recommended for DUI court.

The DUI conviction will stay on the person’s record, Ortegel said, but he or she will receive a suspended sentence for completing DUI court, which involves appearance in court on a regular basis as well as support services and “direct, engaged supervision” by a DUI court judge.

“It brings together the treatment system and the court system,” said Carol Harris, the former RAASAP director who worked to establish the regional DUI court. “It addresses alcohol and drug problems to help the offender, save lives on the road and help the offenders’ families and jobs.”

Judge John Stevens also helped establish the regional DUI court 20 years ago.

“At some point, you realize when you’re seeing the same person more than once, twice, three times for a DUI, it doesn’t seem like you’re getting anywhere as far as solving the problem,” Stevens said. “I got interested in doing something to help.”

At the time, there were very few DUI courts in the country and none in Virginia.

“We had no funding, grants or appropriations,” Stevens said. “We knew we had to do this through a partnership with VASAP.”

Today, there is only one other DUI court in the state—that associated with Valley ASAP, which is based in Staunton.

Ortegel said there are more than 2 million people in the U.S. with three or more DUI convictions.

“That means there are 40,000, on average, in each state that we share our roads with,” he said.

Stevens acknowledged that DUI court has seen numerous failures as well as successes. He recalled one woman who seemed like “a DUI court poster child” for a time before she eventually relapsed and overdosed.

But he recalled another woman who stopped him on the street in downtown Fredericksburg to tell him how well she was doing after finally graduating from DUI court after three convictions.

“DUI court has been one of the most rewarding endeavors I have experienced in my judicial career,” Stevens said.

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Adele Uphaus-Conner: 540/735-1973

auphaus@freelancestar.com

@flsadele

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