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September 21, 2010

Another sad example of a needless death because of weak sentences for drunk driving

Regular readers who know of my persistent complaints and concerns about lenient drink driving sentences will not be surprised that I am troubled by this local story, which is headlined "Woman gets 11 years for fatal DUI crash -- her second fatal DUI crash in 20 years."  Here are the details:

For the second time in two decades, a York County woman has been sent to state prison for killing someone during an alcohol-fueled crash.  Julianne D. Fetrow must serve 11 to 30 years in prison for causing a crash on Nov. 28, 2007, that killed her boyfriend, Victor E. Wolf Jr., 52,....

Her blood-alcohol level at the time was 0.256 percent, police said -- more than three times the state's legal limit. In Pennsylvania, an adult is driving drunk at 0.08 percent.

In December, Fetrow, 44, pleaded guilty to third-degree murder, homicide by vehicle while driving under the influence, DUI and driving with a DUI-suspended license.   A plea agreement negotiated by chief deputy prosecutor Tim Barker and defense attorney Rick Robinson came with a maximum possible sentence of 13 to 30 years. But presiding Common Pleas Judge John S. Kennedy was free to impose a shorter sentence.

On Monday, Kennedy imposed the 11- to 30-year sentence, noting Fetrow had asked about alcohol-addiction programs offered in the state prison system. "We hope she will take advantage of those programs," Kennedy said. "There's no doubt in our mind that if Ms. Fetrow was not an alcoholic, the crash would not have occurred." He also ordered her to pay $3,500 in fines, plus court costs.

Northern York County Regional Police said Fetrow pulled out of Wolf's driveway and into the path of a tractor-trailer.  Wolf, a passenger in his Mercury Capri convertible, was pronounced dead at York Hospital, police said.

After the crash, Fetrow told police she and Wolf had been drinking a bottle of vodka at home, then left their home and drove around to do more drinking, police said. "Julianne Fetrow stated she could not recall where she was going or how the accident occurred," court records state.

Barker has said the decision to charge her with murder, in addition to homicide by vehicle while DUI, was based on the fact that she has a long history of DUI charges and had already completed a court-ordered Alcohol Highway Safety program.

In 1991, Fetrow was ordered to serve 1-1/2 to three years in state prison for killing fisherman Morris Stanley, 55, of Camp Hill, on May 22, 1990.  York Dispatcharticles from the time state that Fetrow was driving a car in Warrington Township that went off a bridge on Route 177 in Gifford Pinchot State Park, then hit Stanley, who was fishing with his two sons.  In that case, her blood-alcohol level was 0.226 percent, police said.

Fetrow has been charged with DUI in Pennsylvania five times, according to court records. She had been free on bail for causing the crash that killed Wolf, but her bail was revoked in October 2008 because probation officers monitoring her discovered she had smoked marijuana, the judge noted Monday....

Wolf's daughter-in-law, Nicole Wolf, spoke in court about the pain her family has struggled with, especially husband Victor Wolf and their son, 5-year-old Victor Jr.... She said her son struggles with nightmares and emotional issues since his grandfather died....

Also speaking in court was Bobby L. Bricker, 36, of Dover, who was driving the tractor-trailer that struck the victim's car.  He said he's battled anger, fear and depression in the wake of the crash, but found help from a faith-based addictions program called Reformers Unanimous. He gave Fetrow a brochure about the group.

Of course, I cannot say with any confidence that giving Fetrow a tougher sentence for her prior killing or for her many other DUI charges would have prevent the death of the victim in this case.  Nevertheless, stories like this one confirm my sense that our society ought to worry more about (and get tough quicker on) repeat drunk drivers than first-offense child porn downloaders and other non-contact sex offenders.  As this case highlights, the harms that repeat drunk drivers can do are severe, profound and can have a wide range of long-term victims.

Critically, my call for a tougher criminal-justice approach to drunk is not meant as advocacy for very long prison terms or a lock-em-up-throw-away-the-key approach.  Rather, I think technocorrections such as SCRAM bracelets and breathalizer ignition locks, back up with tough and certain graduated sanctions for any violations, need to be a more regular response to the defendants like Fetrow who cannot seem to control her addictions.  Such a dynamic approach has proved successful in many drug-court settings, and I wish it would become a norm in more DUI sentencing systems.

Some related posts on sentencing drunk drivers and advocacy for ignition locks:

September 21, 2010 at 09:30 AM | Permalink

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Comments

At some point it would just be cheaper to help these persistent addicts along the path to death.

Maybe this is why when morphine was first isolated it was seen as preferable to alcohol, the morphine user tends to stay put while under the influence.

Barring that perhaps a nice hamstringing would protect the public better than any amount of confinement.

Posted by: Soronel Haetir | Sep 21, 2010 11:12:30 AM

What a bogus headline! If harsh sentences work so well, why do countries with much "weaker" sentences and significant drinking cultures have much lower DWI death rates than in the United States?

Also, the deceased person in the story you described was himself drinking, it was HIS car, and Fetrow was likely driving because he judged she was MORE sober than he was! That's not a "victim," he's a Darwin Award Winner.

Finally, it's hard to reconcile your over the top rhetoric and the caveat that your stance is "not meant as advocacy for very long prison terms or a lock-em-up-throw-away-the-key approach," particularly given some of your past commentary on the topic where you've said things like "I would be fine with a "three-strikes-you're-out" approach to this crime."

Posted by: Gritsforbreakfast | Sep 21, 2010 11:18:50 AM

I agree that these situations are tragedies and that we are not doing enough about it. As much as I am for basic freedoms and checking the power of the state, it is ridiculous that we accept as normal a world in which every time you get on the road you can be killed by a drunk driver (or texting driver). I'd be all for putting ignition locks on ALL cars. Why wait until people are caught committing a DUI?

Posted by: Bruce | Sep 21, 2010 11:35:09 AM

Bruce,

The main argument I see against that is that it would be far more costly than the return on investment. When ignition interlocks don't even pay off when applied to first time offenders I fail to see how mandating them for everyone wouldn't be an even bigger waste.

At this point it would probably be more effective to instate tougher requirements on getting a license to begin with (not that any such requirements would have apparently stopped this particular offender).

Perhaps instead of alcohol based interlocks a valid license interlock is needed. Probably way too many existing cars for that to be feasible however.

Posted by: Soronel Haetir | Sep 21, 2010 11:55:18 AM

Grits, your own post about Berlin (http://gritsforbreakfast.blogspot.com/2010/09/why-so-few-dwis-in-berlin-public.html) provides answers to your questions and support for my advocacy:

1. Having more viable public transit options could/would/should cut down DUI numbers. I suspect Manhattan and downtown Boston have similar numbers to Berlin. I share you desire for more such transportation options, but that is a very long-term solution to a problem that leads to 1000 deaths every month.

2. In Berlin, tougher sentences in the form of increased fines has helped drive down drunk driving rates. This fact confirms my belief that SMART tougher sentences can deter a crime that can/should be readily avoided simply by planning a little bit before going to the bar and/or getting behind the wheel.

3. I do think a 3-strikes approach using imprisonment might give us a relatively big bang for the buck, in part because it might seriously deter first and second DUI offenses. There is empirical data suggesting that the 3-strikes law in CA, for all its many faults, has deterred the commission of prior strikes. I am not saying this is the ideal or should be the only solution, but I am saying that a system so willing to lock up a three-time drug dealer for life ought at least be open to using the same approach to this very harmful crime that is far too often repeated.

Posted by: Doug B. | Sep 21, 2010 11:58:44 AM

Doug B: You might want to add a #4...

Getting a drivers license in European countries is not a trivial exercise, as it is in the US. It can take up to two years of classes, over $2,000 in mandatory fees, and a nine-hour driving test in Germany.

Further, as you note that public transportation is more widely used, fewer people even bother to get licenses. In 2001 in the UK, only 57% of the population held licenses, for example.

I find some foreign laws interesting, as with Finland which calculates fines based on the offender's annual income, or Sweden where a first-time drunk driving can lead to a life-long suspension of driving privileges. I suspect these approaches wouldn't fly in the US for numerous reasons, but still...

I do think the US in general and several states in particular treat DWI/DUI far too leniently. When I read that someone has been arrested for the 20th or 30th time on those charges, and "Now we're going to get serious" I have to wonder.

Posted by: John | Sep 21, 2010 5:48:28 PM

Once again, why is the criminal justice system always the panacea? Once again, Washington State found evidence-based programs that would be more cost-effective and more socially-effective than building new prisons. For example, the nursing program for at risk mothers. Since these programs lower crime by nurturing less criminals, it follows there would also be less alcoholics and drug addicts, with the resulting lower child abuse rates of all types and the consequential lower crime rates. It's win-win.

But there would also be far less victims and Victims Inc might suffer some loss of income along with all the security based companies that depend of fear and a high crime rate. In other words, I do not believe anyone who says they are for victims' rights when they don't promote these programs equally. "An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure." -- Benjamin Franklin.

Posted by: George | Sep 21, 2010 7:56:08 PM

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