Like many other states, ours is engaged in yet another debate about penalties for drunk driving. It’s shaping up like the rest: One contingent pushes hard for tougher prison sentences, while another urges consistent enforcement backed by prevention and treatment.
Ironically, in 2015 our state had its fewest DWI-related fatalities in 20 years. Still, there have been several high profile cases involving multiple offenders, and many citizens feel they’re getting off far too easy.
In terms of prevention, research has long suggested that it’s more effective to focus on making sure drunk drivers are caught and convicted promptly, than it is to devise harsher punishments. It appears that extended prison terms aren’t much good at changing offender behavior after release. Nonetheless, the desire to punish severely is strong. That’s not difficult to understand. When innocents die… well, we want someone to pay for our loss. And pay a lot.
There’s another aspect for legislators to consider: The expense. One bill currently before our state representatives seeks to increase the maximum sentence that can be levied on each count, as well as extend extra time when a case involved a chronic recidivist. The budget folks put the cost of these two changes at $3-5 million annually. We’re not a rich state, and with the price of oil and gas (a key revenue source here) where it’s been, that’ll hurt.
On the issue of which offenders are mostly likely to reoffend (about a third of those arrested every year are reoffenders), we have the results of a literature review by two U. of Buffalo researchers, Nochajski and Stasiewicz. Having just a few of these factors, in any combination, seems to increase that risk:
- Significant substance abuse noted at first offense — I imagine this includes BAL at arrest as well as self-report.
- Aged 30 or older. You thought it would be younger? So did I. Apparently not.
- Heavier alcohol use pattern — This harks back to number one. If the offender reports regular or occasional heavy drinking, take their word for it.
- Low household income
- No college degree
- Family history of alcohol or drug dependence — That shouldn’t surprise anyone.
- History of other driving offenses — It’s worth it to check.
- Prior criminal history — Of other substance-related crimes, for instance.
- Regular use of other drugs — See number 10.
- Depression — Alcohol and depression seem to go hand in hand. And make one another worse.