Monday, November 3, 2008

Prison for OWI's not the answer

Apparently the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel has been purchased by the Mother's Against Drunk Drivers. For the last two weeks, the state's largest newspaper has run a series of very long articles detailing the tragedy of drunk driving - especially the loss of life. The articles reviewed Milwaukee County criminal convictions for 5th offense operating while intoxicated from 1999 through 2006, resulting in a detailed analysis of 161 cases. Just 70 defendants, or 43%, went to prison, receiving an average sentence of 18 months. Seventeen of those had an opportunity to shave substantial time off their sentences by completing boot camp or a treatment program. At least one defendant got out early after petitioning the judge. More defendants were sentenced to probation than prison. Although 70 of the 71 who got probation terms served between three and 12 months in the Milwaukee County House of Correction, about half were allowed to spend their days in the community on work release. Twenty more defendants received jail sentences, 11 with work-release privileges. The blood-alcohol level of a drunken driver was consistently cited as an aggravating factor by sentencing judges. And while the analysis showed that defendants with higher blood-alcohol levels were sent to prison more often, there was no clear relationship between blood-alcohol level and sentence length. For example, among the 16 offenders who were sentenced to 18 months in prison, blood-alcohol levels ranged from 0.10 to a potentially poisonous 0.41.
The entire drift of the article was that Milwaukee judges are softies on repeat drunk drivers and that if we can only toughen the law and penalties we will solve this problem. This is same MADD line that has been floated since that group was formed in the 1980's. Back then, the most a 5th offense drunk driver could get was 1 year and that was usually with work release. Now it is a felony punishable by up to 6 years in prison - not jail.
The talk now is to make even 3rd and 4th offenses felonies, begin "sobriety checkpoints," seize more vehicles, and make the 1st offense criminal (it is currently a civil offense for which you cannot get jail).
What is left unsaid here is that it is our culture of drinking that leads to drunk driving and increasing penalties will do nothing to curb that. The increasing criminalization of human behavior has proven time and again to be a failed construct. We have seen it in the atrocious War on Drugs where we have imprisoned literally millions of our citizens - most of whom are nonviolent addicts. It is this same failed mentality that has taken hold in the War on Drunk Driving that is currently being waged.
Many policy makers have finally recognized that drug addicts (offenders) need treatment. A wise and valuable program in Milwaukee has been instituted to divert drug offenders into treatment and out of the criminal justice system. That system is already strained to the breaking point.
I would propose that a similar program be created for drunk drivers. The advantages are obvious - alcoholism is the same addiction as with drug use. Why wouldn't we use the same treatment logic with drunk drivers?

John A. Birdsall, Birdsall Law Offices, S.C.
135 W. Wells St., Ste 214, Milwaukee, WI 53203
414.831.5465 -