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October 21, 2008

More on the consequences and costs of undue leniency for repeat drunk driving

This article from the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel that reinforces my concerns (recently discussed here) about the harmful consequences and costs of undue sentencing leniency being shown to repeat drunk drivers. The new piece is headlined "One drunken driver’s tab: $365,000," and here is how it starts:

The little blue Chevy Cavalier was mangled, its 19-year-old driver trapped inside. Up against a nearby tree, the pickup truck was on fire. The crash woke Blaze Selestow, who ran out of his house and heard the pickup's driver pleading: "Help me. Help me." Selestow smelled alcohol as he pulled Ricky Adair out of the cab. Moments later, the truck burst into flames.

Adair was a mess. He had two broken kneecaps and two broken ankles, along with a huge gash on his forehead and a host of other injuries.  He also had a blood-alcohol level of 0.273, then nearly three times the legal limit.  It wasn't the first time Adair had been caught driving drunk, or the second, or even the fifth.  Before the accident that nearly killed 19-year-old Sarah Johnson, Adair, then 36, had been convicted of drunken driving at least nine times.

The March 1999 accident in Menomonee Falls and Adair's other drunken-driving offenses came with years of financial and emotional costs: to the taxpayers, to society, and to Adair, Johnson and their families.  Adair's drinking and driving has cost nearly $365,000 since 1985, the Journal Sentinel found.  Of that, nearly $240,000 came out of other people's pockets in the form of tax dollars or insurance payouts.  But the money spent to prosecute, punish and rehabilitate Adair and to compensate Johnson is only part of the story.

In 2007 alone, there were 8,327 alcohol-related crashes in the state, according to the Wisconsin Department of Transportation.  The costs are enormous.... Every year, Wisconsin taxpayers pay $2.7 billion in alcohol-related police and court costs; incarceration; crash investigation and cleanup; lost productivity; academic failures; and premature deaths, according to the Center for Science in the Public Interest.

Linked to the story is this interesting graphic that documents how the paper determined the economic costs resulting from a single defendant's inability to stop drinking and driving.  Needless to say, the social and personal costs of this crime (and our failure to be tough enough at sentencing) dwarfs the raw economic numbers. 

Interestingly, the Sentinel article goes on to report that Adair finally got a tougher sentence for drunk driving after this tenth offense — five years in prison, of which he served over three years — and this tougher sentence finally helped him finally become a law-abiding citizen:

By the time Adair finished a program and got out of prison, he had served 40 months of his 60-month sentence. Keeping him locked up cost more than $100,000. By then, both his parents had died. Finally, he said, he had reached the point where the negative consequences of drinking outweighed the fun.

"By having enough pain from it, the physical, the mental . . . missing my family, that impact was enough on me to not ever want to do that again," he said.  Since his release from prison more than five years ago, Adair has been convicted of two misdemeanors for running an unmetered natural gas line to his garage. 

Adair has not been charged with another drunken-driving offense. He holds a valid driver's license.  He said he also has not taken a drink.  "Every time I wake up I'm just happy that I'm not in prison or hurting anybody or hurting myself anymore," he said.

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October 21, 2008 at 08:00 AM | Permalink


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Tracked on Oct 21, 2008 6:49:39 PM


I think you are wrong to attribute DWI problems to "our failure to be tough enough at sentencing". In what other venue does being "tough" reduce crime? Drugs? Nope. Illegal immigration? Hardly. Even for murder, states using the death penalty most (i.e., the toughest penalty) have the highest murder rates. Do you actually believe what you're saying here?

In Texas, prosecutors frequently secure life sentences for people with multiple DWIs (it's a felony on the third offense, life-eligible on the 5th) and yet Texas has more DWI deaths than California, which has a much larger population. (If your statement were correct, I'd think those numbers would be reversed.) Texas at any one time has more than 5,000 prisoners in state lockups for DWI - we're plenty "tough." What we DON'T have are widely available treatment options beyond AA, even in prison when a judge has ordered treatment services. As a result, they go to prison and just come out dry drunks looking for their next drink.

I'd like to know on what basis you believe "tougher" sentencing reduces DWI, Doug? Is this just a feel-good assumption with no evidence, or is there an actual, research-based analysis behind the premise? I think it's demonstrably wrong based on Texas' experience, where tougher sentencing has corresponded to higher DWI rates than other states.

Posted by: Gritsforbreakfast | Oct 21, 2008 8:47:50 AM

Grits: We have seen the greatest decline in alcohol-related fatalities over the last 20 years as a result of a multi-dimensional approach to educating the public about the risks and harms of drinking and driving. Part of that approach has included getting tougher in the criminal justice arena. I suspect that CJ toughness has reinforced the education message that drinking and driving is not just harmless fun but a serious crime with serious consequences.

I am not aware of much research focused on the drunk driving deterrence/incapacitation issue --- sadly, this important issue goes unexplored while everyone obsesses over whether the death penalty has a deterrent impact on intentional murders. But there is lots of research supporting the claim that getting tougher in a lot of CJ arenas has reduced some crimes.

Please understand that I am not arguing for ONLY a criminal justice solution here. As with all other crimes, I think we need a multi-dimensional approach to be effective. But I find it sad and telling that we have extreme mandatory sentences for a number of non-violent first offenders in other arenas, but that we do not even enforce seriously existing tough sanction for most multiple repeat drunk drivers UNTIL somebody gets killed or badly hurt.

Posted by: Doug B. | Oct 21, 2008 9:43:49 AM

Doug, I don't think there's any research showing getting "tuffer" reduces addiction-based crimes like DWI. That's not because the topic has been ignored, but because there's little substantive relationship between enforcement and addict behavior. Brain chemistry is simply more powerful than legal dicta.

I know you don't pay close attention to Texas like I do, but from our experience it's just false and wrong for you to claim that "we do not even enforce seriously existing tough sanction for most multiple repeat drunk drivers UNTIL somebody gets killed or badly hurt." The approach you favor has been tried here and it's not working. Texas imprisons LOTS of people for DWI exactly along the lines you're advocating - before any injury - and our number of DWI deaths is greater than California's (we have 60% of their population). Until you can explain that result, I think you're jumping to extremely premature conclusions by advocating increased DWI penalties, especially since you grant there's no empirical or research based backing for your position beyond mere scholarly suspicions.

If you don't like "that we have extreme mandatory sentences for a number of non-violent first offenders in other arenas," the answer is to address that problem, not increase DWI sentences until they're comparably out of whack.

Posted by: Gritsforbreakfast | Oct 21, 2008 10:03:16 AM

"Brain chemistry is simply more powerful than legal dicta."

This is correct. Do tougher sentences deter crime? *For some people* it does; for other people it makes no difference. So long as our society insists on looking at crime as first and foremost a social problem, and not an individual problem, then we will continue to fail. If there is any great truth that is preached by the psychological revolution that started in the 1800s it is that people are different: whether you subscribe to Freud, Adler, Jung or someone else, they all agree on that point. People are not motivated by the same rewards and they do not respond similarly to the same punishments. Until our legal system begins to grasp that fact, we will never make progress.

If jail worked to motivate this guy never to drink again, then why was he not in jail on the very first offense? Why wait until #9? The answer is not, let's lock everyone up, nor is the answer to let everyone go with a slap on the wrist. The answer is for the system to do a much better job of individualizing its assessments so that it does whatever it takes to get the specific individual involved to stop their criminal behavior.

But alas, that approach takes wisdom, care, and effort; all three which seem to be in short supply in America.

Posted by: daniel | Oct 21, 2008 11:17:52 AM

It is easy to advocate tougher sentences in the abstract. In the abstract it is easy to overlook the societal costs created by those tougher sentences. But the legislature must (except when dealing with sex offenses) consider the impact of toughening sentences. Incarceration is not cheap. Further, most people don't see DUI as a paticularly serious offense, there is a risk of creating disparity between the perceived seriousness of a crime and its sentence.

So, what is the approriate sentence for a first time offender? A second time offender? Or a third? Does the length of incarceration depend on the availability of substance abuse treatment in connection with the previous offenses? How many years in prison is long enough? Bearing in mind that to protect society, the innocent tax payer is paying $30,000 per year or more to imprison the drunk driver...

Posted by: Monty | Oct 21, 2008 2:19:34 PM

The real story is the story itself. It is tragic and everyone wants to prevent a tragedy. Keep in mind though, like a well-crafted brief, a news story has a designed structure and intent. That the author chose not to include facts Grits points out is telling. Both lawmakers and voters may make decisions based on this story. Were they manipulated? A story like this may commit the fallacy of the part equals the whole and too often knee-jerk laws are the result.

Posted by: George | Oct 21, 2008 3:57:42 PM

Safety improvements to cars have helped to reduce the fatality rate for low and moderate speed collisions. At high speed the safety improvements don't help that much. The police are much better at spotting impaired drivers so the probability of being caught has improved but not enough to be a general deterrent. Sobriety check points would be an effective deterrent but they are very controversial as is observing people that leave bars.

Horrific accidents usually involving a car full of teenagers driven by an intoxicated driver or that was hit by a car driven by an intoxicated drive can result in very harsh penalties for vehicular homicide in response to public outrage. I am not aware of any evidence that would supports the view that hash penalties deter DUI. I know that drunk drivers will avoid areas where the is a high probability of being caught (specific deterrence) and in some cases they will not drive in such areas.

My take on this subject is that improvements to cars and increased probability of apprehension are more important factors contributing to the decrease in the fatality rate than the severity of the penalties.

Posted by: John Neff | Oct 21, 2008 5:22:41 PM

Let me get this straight - the crime we are discussing is not being an addict, it's not being intoxicated in public, it's choosing to get behind the wheel, or to put yourself in a POSITION where you'll get behind the wheel, when you're a danger to others. I do have sympathy for the person struggling with the disease of addiction, but I have FAR MORE sympathy for someone who's injured, maimed, or killed, by a person who gets behind the wheel while impaired. Not all DWI offenders are alcoholics. Giving them a pass because many are is just incomprehensible. To Daniel, I ask whether an alcoholic DWI offender should receive preferential treatment compared to someone who is NOT an alcoholic? And in terms of using prison to keep "dangerous" criminals off the street, I'd say the quoted fiogure of $30,000 a year is a pretty cheap investment compared to the cost of allowing repeat DWI offenders to drive and injure/kill an innocent person. Oh yeah, one last question - how many attempts does it take to get sober? Do we leave the repeat DWI offender on the street because he's trying but, at the moment, failing in his attempts at sobriety?

Posted by: | Oct 21, 2008 11:16:58 PM

DWI statistics are based on lies, the primary one of which is the use of the term "alcohol-related accident" and the like. If a sober driver runs into a car, one of whose passengers has over .08% blood alcohol, and whether or not the car was even moving, that is considered an "alcohol-related accident."

Anything that silly cannot be used as a basis for a statistical analysis of the evils of drinking and driving, and anyone, whether newspaper or cop, who uses such terminology is not to be believed or respected.

Posted by: jimbino | Oct 22, 2008 11:11:57 AM

11:16:58, you have some good arguments. What about police cadets/traffic safety outside bars from about midnight to closing? They have direct radio contact with the dispatcher and with a taxi service.

They tell those who appear drunk while leaving the bar, "Get in your car and I'll have you pulled over. Get a cab and the state will pay for it. Argue and you may be arrested for public intoxication and your care will be impounded."

Wouldn't that be cheaper, more effective and safer than anything else proposed? Wouldn't that be a better deterrent than the off chance of being pulled over?

Posted by: George | Oct 22, 2008 4:47:46 PM


No, I don't think it makes any difference whether the person is an alcoholic or not in terms of the "treatment" they receive, understanding treatment in its broadest possible sense. But there may be a difference in the specific treatment they receive. For example, an alcoholic may have different types of mental health counseling, in different amounts, and in different ways than the person who is not an alcoholic. Whether such differences in treatment are seen as "preferential" I know not; certainly I am not arguing that they should be more lenient. Again, understanding lenient in its broadest possible sense.

As the end of the day I don't believe that a person's sentence should be based upon social norms (what the guy in the next room got). I think it should be based upon an individualized and particularized understanding of what each case requires. Superficially, this may lead to the appearance that some people get preferential treatment when seen in a social comparative sense. But the proof should be in the pudding, as the saying goes. If we prevent more crime with less dollars, then appearances can go to the devil as far as I am concerned.

Posted by: Daniel | Oct 22, 2008 8:11:57 PM

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