An editorial in yesterday’s Olympian discusses a proposal to elevate multiple drunk driving convictions from a gross misdemeanor to a class C felony. HB 1451, introduced by Rep. John Ahern (R-Spokane), would make a third such conviction punishable by as much as 17 months in jail; under current law the maximum penalty is a $1000 fine and 90 days.
213 peopled died as a result of drunk driving accidents in 2004. That this was the lowest number of such fatalities since 1961 does not lessen the tragedy.
But while I’m certainly not going to argue against getting repeat drunk driving offenders off the roads, I was struck by the cost of the Ahern proposal:
Locking DUI defendants up in prison is a costly proposition. According to officials with the National Highway Traffic Safety Commission, approximately one-third of those people arrested for DUI are repeat offenders. Putting three-time offenders behind bars for up to 17 months would force the state of Washington to build another 1,000-bed prison. That would cost about $225 million over a two-year budget cycle.
And that figure doesn’t include the $60-plus million per biennium to house the extra prisoners.
That’s more than $350 million of state expenditures over the next 6 years — all to lock up a thousand or so drunk drivers — and I can’t help but wonder if maybe the problem couldn’t be addressed at less financial and personal expense? That’s not the bleeding heart liberal in me talking, it’s the calculating utilitarian. Certainly there are incorrigible drunks who will never stop drinking and driving, and they need to be locked up to protect the public. But there are others who might be stopped if proper resources were made available for treatment, education and technology. For example, repeat offenders could be required to have their cars installed with devices that require the driver to pass a breathalyzer before engaging the ignition. Such technology is expensive… but a helluva lot cheaper than incarceration.
So while I agree with the Olympian that the bill deserves “additional consideration and refinement,” I hope that lawmakers make a proper cost-benefit analysis, and consider all the options, before passing expensive legislation on what is undoubtedly a very emotional issue. It may be that a little prevention is more effective and less costly than the cure.