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September 24, 2009

State judge makes pitch for ignition locks for drunk drivers

Thanks to a helpful commentor, I just noticed this terrific Slate piece in which a retired state court judge makes an effective pitch for one of my favorite modern technocorrection punishment : ignition locks for drunk drivers.  The piece is headlined "Baby, You Can't Drive Your Car: A judge's favorite punishment for drunken drivers—ignition-interlock," and it discusses lots of legal reform issues that transcend just how to deal with drunk drivers:

On May 28, 1987, I became the first judge in the state of California to order convicted drunken drivers to install ignition-interlock devices in their cars.  The device is designed to stop people who have been drinking alcohol from starting their cars by requiring them first to blow into it.  If there is alcohol on the driver's breath, the device will not allow the ignition system to operate.

Ordering convicted drunken drivers to install these devices seems to me a matter of common sense and basic safety.  But in fact, the matter proved far more complicated.  The California courts may soon require judges to follow my lead on ignition-interlock sentencing.  But it has taken more than 20 years and new legislation, which is on Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger's desk awaiting his signature. Why has it taken so long?  And why do we need a law mandating such an obvious safety measure when judges could put it into effect themselves?

My own history suggests one unsettling answer.  Early on, my fellow judges did not support my ignition-interlock sentences. Judges, no less than the rest of us, resist change. My colleagues who were assigned to calendars filled with drunken driving charges wanted to dispose of these cases quickly and quietly, obtaining guilty pleas as early in the process as possible. Completing the additional paperwork that went with ignition-interlock devices did not sit well with them.

Then came the totally unexpected opposition from the local chapter of Mothers Against Drunk Driving. In their view, the ignition-interlock devices weren't punitive enough; they preferred more jail time for drunken drivers. Incarceration, however, is a temporary remedy. As the recidivism numbers clearly demonstrate, convicted drunken drivers return to the roads in numbers too great to ignore.

And finally, in my own court, as I continued to order the installation of ignition-interlock systems, I started to worry about fairness, since the devices are expensive....

Today, almost all 50 states have laws permitting the imposition of ignition-interlock devices as sentencing alternatives for drunken drivers. The devices have a proven track record as an effective deterrent.  The American Journal of Preventive Medicine notes that five out of six studies found that interlocks reduced the rate of recidivism for DWI charges.  Participants in the interlock programs were 15 percent to 69 percent less likely than other offenders to be rearrested for drunken driving.

And yet, as a recent New York Times op-ed noted, while the effectiveness of the devices is clear, judges often fail to order the installations, even when the law requires it. Anecdotally, you can take your pick of explanations: too much paperwork; too much court time to review the results of the breath printouts; opposition to any other sentencing options other than jail; ignorance of the fact that this is a sentencing alternative.  In any case, just as convicted drunken drivers must be made to use the devices, judges must be made to order them.  The well-documented carnage on our highways and the tremendous economic impact wreaked upon us by drunken drivers are far too great to leave to judicial whim.

In California, the bill on the governor's desk, which passed earlier this month, would require judges to order the installation of ignition-interlock devices in the vehicles of convicted first-time and repeat drunken drivers, as a pilot project in the counties of Los Angeles, Alameda, Sacramento, and Tulare.  If Gov. Schwarzenegger signs the bill, the pilot program would start in July 2010 and become statewide law in 2016.  This legislation is supported by a wide array of law enforcement agencies, including MADD, which has changed its stance on ignition-interlock sentencing.

Schwarzenegger should sign the bill. It will make our judges better.  And it will make our streets safer.  Finally.

There are so many important insights and lessons to be drawn from this story, especially as it relates to the institutional status quo biases that often prevents sensible and effective sentencing and punishment reforms from gaining traction.  Here is hoping not only that ignition locks soon become a standard punishment term for drunk driving, but also that this story helps folks interested in "smart on crime" reforms to understand the structural challenges that make even the soundest sentencing changes hard to achieve.

Some related posts on sentencing drunk drivers:

September 24, 2009 at 10:24 AM | Permalink


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I support these on the second offense, but the state should pay if it's required on the first. It'd still be cheaper than incarceration.

Posted by: Gritsforbreakfast | Sep 24, 2009 1:26:33 PM

Except that if they are forced to pay for the interlock that is less that they have available to spend on booze to begin with.

As a liquor store owner I am once more glad that people get drunk after leaving my establishment, not during their stay.

Posted by: Soronel Haetir | Sep 24, 2009 3:57:24 PM

Why is it that this is such a good policy? It basically waits for a drunk driving offense to occur, rather than try to prevent one in the first place. Advocates such as Mothers Against Drunk Driving provide support for these types of reactive approaches to crime, yet their reasoning for doing so (e.g., to protect citizens from drunk drivers) fails to account for the fact that an offense has to occur before ignition interlocks even enter the equation. Further, these do nothing to attend to the underlying causes of alcoholism and risky behavior such as drunk driving in the first place. It could therefore be expected that the behavior will occur again once the interlock requirement is up. Instead, they provide yet another way for the justice system to make money while exercising further control and coercion through the stigmatization of individuals who engage in a behavior that is more common than most would like to admit.

Posted by: BadIdea | Sep 24, 2009 10:07:52 PM

Bad Idea,

Mostly it is the price we pay for freedom. Generally, someone has to get caught before their freedom can be curtailed. I find this arrangement far preferable to the alternative.

Posted by: Soronel Haetir | Sep 24, 2009 11:48:17 PM

Right, but if the goal is to reduce drunk driving and increase the safety of the public then the loss of freedom, or any other sanction-no matter how harsh, is not going to prevent the act from occurring.

Posted by: BadIdea | Sep 25, 2009 10:52:49 AM

Install them at the factory for every new car. In 20 years all but a few cars on the road will have them. Inspect them once a year with all the air pollution crude they put on cars at the factory. If everyone has them there is no stigma. But it would be better if we just went back to horses and buggys. At the $3.00 per gallon for gas I am thinking about it.

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