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Mixed message on drunken driving

HE STOOD silently beside his lawyer as the clerk read him the charges -- operating a motor vehicle under the influence of alcohol, his third offense. He had the frightened look of someone who hadn't been in a courtroom for more than 23 years and a more frightened look of someone charged with a crime that carried a mandatory minimum jail sentence of at least six months.

His wife sat two rows back, listening intently, out of place among the crowd that normally frequents the court. Her husband, his lawyer recounted, had gone out with co-workers at the close of the business day and had a couple of beers. He was stopped for speeding on his way home and arrested for operating a motor vehicle while under the influence of alcohol.

He had been convicted of this same crime twice before, both in the early 1980s when he was in his early 20s. Because of a recent change in the law, those two convictions were considered with this new offense, enhancing the sentence for any conviction requiring the minimum mandatory period of jail as well as a loss of his driver's license for five years.

His lawyer told me that his client owns his own business and is a father of two children and an established member of the community. A good man, husband, father. Someone who learned from the mistakes of his past. He may have made a mistake this night, I was told, but not one warranting incarceration. A sentence to the House of Corrections for six months would cause him to lose his business, leaving his family without support and unable to pay their mortgage.

Was this man a chronic substance abuser who needed to be in jail and off the roads before he killed someone while driving drunk, or was he someone who made a serious mistake and who should be punished appropriately, lose his driver's license, but receive treatment and education so as to deter future criminal behavior?

Unfortunately, I was not allowed to answer that question because of the law now requires mandatory incarceration -- an attitude that one sentence fits all, that all people convicted of this crime are the same, and the judges cannot be trusted to exercise sound reason, judgment, and discretion.

This case is an example of dozens of similar defendants who have appeared before me, each with a unique history and present situation, but all of whom now face a mandatory sentence at the House of Correction.

The dramatic change in the law was enacted in the Legislature in an informal session, suggested to be noncontroversial, requiring no debate. It may be controversial to suggest it represents bad public policy. After all, no one wants to suggest that we weaken the laws on drunken driving. But there should be no controversy that we ought to do all we can to prevent drunken driving in the first place -- through education and treatment. However, at the same time that the state has toughened both the rhetoric and laws against drunken driving, it has significantly reduced funding for substance abuse treatment.

Because of budget cuts, the number of detox beds has been reduced by nearly 50 percent statewide. On the South Shore, this has meant closing the Quincy Detox/Faxon Recovery program, the only detox serving that area. In the last fiscal year, Faxon handled more than 3,000 admissions, seeing more than 270 patients per month. Of those admissions, approximately 60 percent successfully completed detox and went on to further substance abuse treatment.

The state has also eliminated the toughest alcohol education program in the state for first-time offenders -- a 26-week program in Quincy. It has been replaced by a standard 16-week program, thereby reducing the level of education, supervision, and alcohol and drug testing for the hundreds of first-time drunken drivers referred by the Quincy District Court.

For those convicted of multiple drunken driving offenses, the state has eliminated the Longwood treatment center, where criminal offenders for drunken driving could be referred to a locked substance abuse treatment program for up to six months, where they would be incarcerated, but also receive treatment. By defunding or eliminating successful detox programs, aggressive and proven alcohol education programs, and residential treatment for substance abusers, the state has sent out the mixed policy message as to how serious it really wants to be in preventing drunken driving.

The state can toughen the laws, but it won't necessarily prevent drunken driving without a system to treat the disease. We must move beyond simplistic solutions and provide the resources necessary to prevent the tragedies that result from drunken driving.

Mark S. Coven is the first justice of the Quincy District Court.

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