Thousands of innocent people are killed each year by alcohol- and drug-impaired drivers, most of whom are repeat DUI offenders. The National Highway Transportation Safety Agency's findings reveal that most habitual offenders drive at least 80 times a year while impaired. They feel confident that their chances of being stopped are slim to none. This is their lifestyle: drinking and driving to meet friends at their favorite watering holes. They are beyond being "treated," as most do not want anything or anyone to change their lifestyle.
Most states have recognized that habitual DUI offenders cannot be deterred effectively with typical misdemeanor criminal penalties, so they have enacted laws to allow prosecutors to charge a third DUI as a felony -- provided that the first two DUIs were within the previous five years and resulted in convictions. Washington is one of only three states that punishes the crime of DUI with a gross misdemeanor, which can mean up to one year in a county jail. In reality, most habitual offenders never receive the full year in jail, due to jail overcrowding and apathetic judges doling out reduced sentences.
Truth in sentencing in Washington is a joke. Washington looks for ways to avoid locking up criminals and finds creative ways to let them out early. Some of the same state legislators who have jumped on the bandwagon for tougher sex offender penalties helped pass into law the 2000 Offender Accountability Act, which was an ingenious scheme to save money by eliminating supervised probation for thousands of felons released from prison who are classified as "low-risk" offenders. That act also implemented the 50 percent "good time off" rule that cut in half sentences imposed by judges for most non-violent offenses. Sex offenders and murderers still serve full sentences and must be actively supervised upon release. This legislation was passed with fanfare as being tough on crime. The money saved was then used to fund highways, teachers' salary increases and other pet projects both parties pushed for.
Washington's goal is to "restore" criminals back into society through treatment and programming. Nearly 8,300 felons released from Washington's prisons and other states who have been supervised in Washington have no actual "hands-on" supervision by probation officers. Often, the only time probation officers know where these low-risk offenders are is when they are arrested for committing new crimes. This group includes thieves, burglars and drug users, most of whom are the young adults most in need of strict supervision to keep them from becoming career criminals.
Republican legislator John Ahern narrowly won his 6th District House seat in 2000 with promises to pass tougher laws for both methamphetamine and habitual DUI offenders. When he did nothing to sponsor a felony DUI bill, I contacted Representative (now Senator) Brad Benson, and he sponsored a bill. His bill never got out of the House Judiciary Committee in 2001, 2002 or 2003, despite overwhelmingly supportive testimony from families of victims killed by habitual DUI offenders, from law enforcement and from prosecutors, including me. Why? The cost of new prison construction was cited, backed by absurd assumptions that all DUI arrests would result in felony charges and prompt convictions.
Idaho, for example, currently has only 22 out of its 6,100 prison inmates serving felony DUI sentences, but they are the very worst offenders. A felony DUI law protects the public effectively by giving prosecutors greater leverage in resolving DUI cases, especially if evidenciary issues arise, and by generally achieving longer jail sentences. In 2006, we learn of a billion-dollar surplus in Washington, with both parties looking for ways to either spend or save it. Now is the time to focus on ensuring the safety of all Washingtonians, which is the primary duty of both the Legislature and the Governor, by enacting a felony DUI law.
House Bill 3076 has been sponsored in this 2006 legislative session by Representative Ahern. In an effort to win passage, his bill has been watered down to limit the number of people the law would impact. Before a DUI can be charged as a felony, the offender must have had three prior misdemeanor DUI convictions within the past seven years. Dangerous drivers can remain a serious risk to the public longer than they should, but at least this bill is a start. It provides for an initial prison range of 15 to 20 months, but due to the 50 percent good time off rule, the actual range would be around seven to 10 months in a state prison.
Everyone in Washington with any concern for personal safety and the safety of family and friends must get involved in the passage of this bill. Call, write or even travel to Olympia if possible to demand bipartisan support from all legislators for this bill. The question is not whether a habitual DUI offender will eventually kill someone. The question is: When? And how many? Can Washington afford not to pass House Bill 3076?
James Reierson is a Spokane native and resident. Since 1999, he has been a deputy prosecuting attorney in Kootenai County, Idaho. From 1991-99, he served as a deputy prosecuting attorney in Walla Walla County, Wash.