Drunken-driving penalties “could” depend on your location

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.

Rose appeared before Judge Kimberly Small on Wednesday, who ordered him to serve 20 days in the county jail on his first offense. Small told him she doesn’t mind him drinking but said: “I do mind when you get behind the wheel of a two-ton vehicle and use it as a weapon against the rest of us.”

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.

“We have two crimes here. What my client did, and what happened here today,” Davidson said Wednesday after the sentencing. “What we have is an elected judge legislating from the bench. What we saw today was a miscarriage of justice.”

Rose told Small on Wednesday that he had been “humbled and humiliated by this process.”

“I have no one else to blame for endangering the community,” he said.

via USA Today


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