Friday, September 21, 2018

More on TX DWI arrest decline

Grits' post the other day about declining DWI enforcement drew quite a bit of interest, so I thought I'd re-up a Reasonably Suspicious podcast segment Mandy Marzullo and I did in May on the decline of DWI and drunkenness arrests in Texas over the last several years. This recurring segment is called "Suspicious Mysteries," in which we discuss questions to which there are no definitive answers. Give it a listen:

See a related discussion and more data on the topic here. Find a transcript of the segment below the jump.

Transcript: May 2018 Reasonably Suspicious podcast segment in which Scott Henson and Mandy Marzullo discuss Texas' statewide decline in DWI and drunkenness arrests

Mandy Marzullo: Next up, a segment we call Suspicious Mysteries, in which we tackle questions to which there are no definitive answers.

Mandy Marzullo: In recent years far fewer Texans have been arrested for alcohol related crimes than in years past. According to DPS arrest statistics the number of adults arrested for DWI declined by more than a third between 2010 and 2016, and arrests for drunkenness declined by more than a half. Scott, you first reported on this until now unreported trend on your blog Ritz for Breakfast. What do you think is causing it?

Scott Henson: Well, as indicated by the title of this segment, we don't really know what's causing it. It's kind of a crazy thing because DWI enforcement remains very popular. We've seen district attorneys be unelected because they didn't enforce DWI strongly enough. So it's really surprising that you would see these numbers go down by a third over this seven year period. Now we do have a few possibilities, a few potential explanations. For starters, we know that the number of traffic tickets went down by about a third, total state wide among all agencies. No one really knows why, but there has been a reduction in traffic enforcement overall. It could be that this is just a part of that reduction in traffic enforcement that maybe occurred for reasons that don't have anything to do with DWI.

Scott Henson: On the other hand, among other possible explanations, this is a period when the Department of Public Safety shifted hundreds and hundreds of troopers, massive numbers of troopers, down to the border. All of a sudden these guys are standing along the river staring across the water with binoculars instead of driving around looking for drunks. While it's amazing to imagine that them making that change in priorities would result in a one-third statewide reduction in DWIs, it probably is a contributing factor that that shift in deployment patterns caused this. We've also heard judges and district attorneys talk about how the driver responsibility surcharge may be causing some of this. That people are allowing DWIs to plead down to reckless driving, or to blocking the roadway, or something that doesn't get a surcharge because they now that people can't pay these surcharges once they're on.

Mandy Marzullo: But this is the arresting charge, so that would be discretion on the part-

Scott Henson: That's true, that was the arrest.

Mandy Marzullo: -of law enforcement.

Scott Henson: That's true, so that wouldn't explain that.

Mandy Marzullo: But it could be, I mean it could still be part of what the average law enforcement officer is thinking at the time of an arrest. They make decisions as well. They're implementing policy, whether they think of themselves in that light or not.

Scott Henson: That's right, but we don't really know. It's kind of a crazy moment. If it turns out to be that the DPS redeployment is the reason, that actually is something that could be a political issue in the governor's race this fall, quite frankly. I really think that it's one thing for people to think the DPS deployment is a politicized thing, I'm not sure I support that. It's another to say okay it's a politicized deployment and as a result you have less DWI enforcement in your community. I think that actually could be something that has political consequences, but can we prove at the moment that that's the source, no. We just know that there's been this amazingly radical reduction. The reduction in drunkenness makes you think well maybe it's just something related to alcohol generally. Maybe alcohol is falling out of fashion, and you're not getting as many drunk in public incidents as you used to. Maybe Uber and Lyft are causing some of that, people are taking ride shares instead of driving home drunk. We can't really know from the information we have.

Mandy Marzullo: It would be interesting also to look at how geography is playing a role in this. Is there clustering? Also, what is the relationship between the decline in DWIs and mortality rates. Has that changed?

Scott Henson: Actually, I can answer the latter but not the former. As far as mortality rates, fatal accidents had been going down very, very slightly right before the drop began. They have begun going back up very, very slightly, but the population increase has been greater, so the rate has continued to go down.

Mandy Marzullo: Interesting.

Scott Henson: We're not seeing the rate of fatal DWI accidents going up in response to this. You have seen a slight increase in the overall total number, but when you add in the proportionality for population, it isn't a thing. So it's hard to tell. We don't have enough information from the top line statewide data. I think it's a great observation, you would need some geographic data and to understand better where this is clustered.

Mandy Marzullo: Or even if there is clustering if it isn't-

Scott Henson: That's right.

Mandy Marzullo: And what's happening underneath of all this. Although, it's kind of interesting that the mortality rate hasn't increased under this. That does kind of call to question-

Scott Henson: What's the point?

Mandy Marzullo: Right. Exactly. Why are we incarcerating people? Why are we putting them through overly punitive surcharges for their driver's license if at the end of the day it's not making our roads safer?

Scott Henson: That's right. If you get a DWI in Texas and you actually pay every fee and surcharge, and probation cost, and everything, it's between $15,000 and $20,000 when you're done.

Mandy Marzullo: Yeah.

Scott Henson: It's a big chunk. The thing I mention on the blog is what's fascinating is that no one's really noticed that we have this many fewer DWIs. The only people that seem to care at all are probation directors because they get fewer people on probation, and the criminal defense lawyers because DWI is one of the few places where people actually hire attorneys. Other than that I think everyone else just looked up and said oh no big deal, don't really care, that didn't really matter, which is fascinating in and of itself. Why are we doing it if we can have DWIs decline by a third and it didn't really affect safety at all?

Mandy Marzullo: Yeah.

Scott Henson: It's fascinating.

Mandy Marzullo: Exactly. Even with all the fees that are collected, it's hard to tell whether at the end of the day the state is even generating money from it because it costs money to incarcerate someone, it costs money to arrest someone and have people out on patrol. There are a lot of questions here about whether this is sound policy.

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