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July 29, 2011

USA Today reports on national differences in punishment for drunk drivers

USA Today has this notable article on drunk driving punishments nationwide.  The piece is headlined "Drunken-driving penalties could depend on your location," and here are excerpts:

When former NBA star and ESPN analyst Jalen Rose was sentenced for a March drunken driving incident this week, one of the biggest factors in his punishment was the location of his arrest: the Detroit suburb of West Bloomfield.... If Rose had been arrested a few miles away in Pontiac, Mich., his chances of going to jail would have been almost zero, Michigan state statistics show.

The case showed the inconsistent punishment meted out for drunken driving in Michigan and across the country. Drunken driving penalties are a lot like real estate values; they depend on location, location, location.

Alaska, Tennessee and Georgia are among the states with mandatory jail time for first offenders, locking up drunks for three, two and one day respectively, a survey of state laws shows. California, Connecticut and Indiana don't require jail for first timers. In Wisconsin, first-offense drunken driving isn't even a crime. It's a civil infraction that results in a ticket.

"There are no set guidelines on this. There's no national standard on this," said Alex R. Piquero, a criminology professor at the University of Texas-Dallas, who has studied drunken driving for more than 20 years. "There is a lot of discretion. It's like a ref on the football field. Everyone holds on every play. Which one is the most egregious of the offense?"

No one doubts the frequency of the problem.  Drunken driving is blamed for 12,744 traffic deaths in 2009, according to National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.  More than 1.4 million drivers are arrested for it annually, according to FBI statistics.

So what to do with them? Different courts use different means, from fines, probation, education classes and jail time , and the court a driver ends up in often is a big factor in the type of punishment handed down.

National research suggests jailing first-time offenders doesn't influence whether they will do it again, said James Fell, senior program director for the Alcohol, Policy and Safety Research Center in Maryland. "The studies show it has no impact," Fell said. "Jail is really only an effective tool if it is used as a threat to make the drunk driver comply with other orders for probation, treatment, community service, alcohol testing."

Federal highway officials and National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism issued sentencing guidelines in 2006 that are used by drunken-driving courts nationwide. "The available evidence suggests that as a specific deterrent, jail terms are extremely costly and no more effective in reducing (drunken-driving) recidivism," the manual notes, adding that one study found "two days in jail may have a specific deterrent effect and may be more effective than a two-week sentence … for first-time offenders."

Instead, the manual suggests several sanctions, including the use of ignition interlock devices that require offenders to blow into a device that prevents the car from starting if the driver has been drinking.

Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD) said those devices are the leading tool in stopping drunken driving.  "There needs to be that threat of incarceration because drunk driving is a crime," said Frank Harris, the state legislative affairs manager for the national MADD office.  "But we are finding the most effective way is to have the ignition interlock." Piquero said the jury is still out on the effectiveness of the devices because researchers haven't had the chance to study them yet.

Still, some judges like Small, insist nothing sends a stronger message, to the driver and to other drinkers, than the inside of a jail cell.  Rose's lawyer, Keith Davidson, disagreed, noting Rose has done community service for years, and funded a soon-to-open charter school in Detroit and medical facilities in the Congo.

If research and evidence consistently shows that two days in jail is more effective than two weeks or two months in deterring these crimes, then I hope more judges will give two days in jail.  All along in my commentary on this important matter, I am eager to reduce in whatever ways possible the nearly 13,000 deaths of innocent persons (not to mention many more injuries and probably billions in property damage) that are the result of this crime every year.

July 29, 2011 at 10:11 AM | Permalink


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I request that all left wing advocates of big government make a brief disclosure of economic conflict of interest before posting proposals for more punishment by the criminal law. Drunk driving is a huge money maker, because people have to drive in most areas of the USA. How about, "The following argument about drunk drivers is to enlarge the size, power, and wealth of government." Then, let readers judge, discounting for bias, and self-interest. When the State of Ohio makes more money, state university profs can ask for a raise with greater confidence. They will make $1000's off each drunk driver before done.

If you stop all cars, and test the drivers, about 10% are over the legal limit of blood alcohol. Why is there not carnage everywhere one drives if 1 in 10 drivers is intoxicated? The blood alcohol is not the cause of the crashes. Indeed, slow, tentative driving, state troopers are taught, is a sign of drunk driving. The vast majority of drunk drivers are not hurting anyone, and should be left alone.

Prevention should focus on those causing damage, with incapacitation being the sole mature goal of the criminal law. Roughly 20% of drunk drivers are aggressive, and should be taken off the road by any means necessary, including the death penalty. In background, personality, and lifestyle, they happen to resemble the prison population, the criminals. They usually have no reachable assets, so only procedures to their bodies will help. Lose the license. Put an interlock in the car. House arrest if not going to work, eventually short prison term, then long prison terms, summary execution after 123D.

Posted by: Supremacy Claus | Jul 30, 2011 5:12:19 PM

Doug, you missed the main point of the research for judges. The issue isn't so much two days or two weeks, though two days has a lot more going for it from a cost benefit perspective. The issue is that "Jail is really only an effective tool if it is used as a threat to make the drunk driver comply with other orders for probation, treatment, community service, alcohol testing." Since most people busted for drunk driving are never in their lives again arrested for the offense, in many cases no jail at all, by the logic presented in the story, would serve the cause of public safety best.

Posted by: Gritsforbreakfast | Jul 31, 2011 8:46:23 AM

The interesting question here, to me, is should State law vary? Indeed, isn't federalism and the great experiment of the States a significant part of the political identity of this country? Wasn't that a large part of what the founding fathers and generations afterwards have clung, or at least paid lip service, to in times of great debate. The fact that we citizens are free to vote with our feet means States can enact penalties of varying degrees, and change them periodically as does my own State, Texas, to allow future thinkers to evaluate the efficacy of the different approaches.

Here we have some research. Is it enough? How much is ever enough for decision makers. Supremacy Claus makes a good point in that there are two main categories of intoxicated drivers who are arrested-(1) Those strongly deterred by their experience in the criminal justice system who are unlikely to reoffend, and (2) the repeat offenders who have serious substance abuse and often emotional issues that make them a continuing danger to society absent intervention.

The question for penalties seems in large part well focused on the second group, whereas the research alluded to above seems focused more on the first group. The issue I have is that most any penalty will likely have a significant deterrent effect on the first group. Yet, as best I can tell, only mandatory treatment backed by threat of significant jail time can help the second.

I'd surely like to see a better solution to helping and deterring the second category. I just haven't yet.

Posted by: John C. Prezas | Aug 1, 2011 10:27:48 AM

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