Contrary to the deceptive statistics publicized by MADD (see “A Closer Look at DUI Fatality Statistics”), the number of deaths caused by drunk driving has not decreased significantly since the beginning of increasingly harsh penalties years ago. And so new laws are passed further lowering legal limits and raising penalties….ad infinitum.
The simple fact is that most DUI-related deaths are caused by a relatively small group of “problem drinkers”. These individuals are typically characterized by recidivism (repeat offenses), unusually high blood-alcohol levels – that is, alcoholism. And, since it is a disease, they are simply not deterred by criminal sanctions.
By now, most experts recognize that alcoholism is a disease, not a choice. And you don’t treat a disease with incarceration. If you throw an alcoholic in jail for six months, on the day he walks out he will likely go to the first bar he finds and resume drinking. What has been accomplished?
Apparently, a small number of more enlightened judges are beginning to come to the same conclusions. Consider the following Los Angeles Times article (involving a judge sitting in one of my home courts):
Positive reinforcement is a central tenet of Orange County’s DUI court, which opened in October. It is one of only two courts of its kind in California but is one of a growing number nationwide. They’re designed to reduce recidivism among drunk drivers by providing encouragement and strict supervision to help treat addiction rather than imposing jail sentences or fines….
“This is a major change in direction for courts,” (Judge Carleton P.) Biggs said. “People are starting to realize our traditional approaches don’t work’. I wouldn’t be surprised in years to come to see this approach taken a lot more”….”
We recognize incapacity due to mental disease: the plea/verdict is “not guilty by reason of insanity” (NGI). The defendant is not simply set free, but is hospitalized for treatment of the disease. Why not treatment for problem drunk drivers who suffer from the (largely genetic) disease of alcoholism? In other words, why not recognize a plea of “not guilty by reason of alcoholism” (NGA)?
Would you prefer to have a chronic drunk driver off the roads for a few months — or in control of his disease?