lawmakers are scrambling over what other steps to take:State Sen. Jane Nelson is proposing permanent license suspensions for drunk drivers on the second offense, seemingly ignoring testimony by Texas judges at recent legislative hearing arguing that threat of license suspensions do not increase compliance with the law. MADD is pushing sobriety checkpoints and mandatory ignition interlocks for first-time offenders. (I support making interlocks mandatory on the second offense, but 80% of first time DWIs don't recidivate, the Senate Criminal Justice Committee was told last month, and in that context interlocks aren't worth the bang for the buck on first timers and dilute focus on supervising more dangerous repeaters.)
•The old path: Pass stricter laws to keep drunken drivers off the streets. Critics say they haven't been effective enough in lowering the death toll.
•The new path: Loosen financial penalties for some drunken drivers. Prosecutors say the fines are so burdensome that many choose time behind bars rather than probation, which gives more access to treatment.
•The forgotten path: Lawmakers, attorneys and judges say substance abuse treatment is the best way to ensure drivers don't reoffend. But because of tight budgets, there's little chance the Legislature will increase such programs for those incarcerated for DWI offenses.
In the past, "doing something" about drunken driving mostly meant imposing more prison time and higher fines. But Texas still leads the nation in alcohol-related fatalities with 1,269 in 2008, the latest year for complete data.
Legislators will reconvene in January, and several ideas already have been bandied about, from sobriety checkpoints to requiring more use of restrictive car devices.
Indeed, it would be foolish to spend vastly more resources on first offenders when Texas isn't putting enough resources into repeat offenders. The News reported that "Among the 5,159 DWI offenders with three or more DWI convictions released last year, more than half did not receive treatment in prison." Funding in-prison treatment for those with three or more DWIs to me should be a bigger priority that maximizing strict supervision of first offenders, most of whom won't recidivate anyway.
Yesterday's story also finally addressed the problem of drunk drivers choosing incarceration instead of probation because ever-tougher laws have made it untenable for average people. "Roger Bridgwater, assistant district attorney in Harris County, is alarmed by the number of drivers who choose a DWI conviction rather than probation. Ten years ago, 45 percent of drunken drivers in that county chose probation. By 2009, that dropped to 23 percent." (Then they wonder why Harris County's jail is always full.)
It's depressing to me that the political class, including the media, so exclusively focuses on criminal justice solutions to social problems like alcoholism, drug abuse, family violence, etc.. Nowhere is there a discussion of whether expanded public transport might reduce DWIs, or other structural solutions that don't rely exclusively on police and jails. Other than to disingenuously use them as a foil to imply more jail sentences should be handed out, the issue of public education and advertising wasn't even addressed in any depth. As the News says, "doing something" about DWI for legislators usually means "imposing more prison time and higher fines," even when practitioners say tougher approaches are counterproductive. And unfortunately most media coverage on the subject isn't much better about thinking outside the box on this hot-button issue.