Solution must include treatment
Driving while intoxicated is right up there near the top of the list of perpetual problems that our lawmakers “solve” every so often. The last swipe at it was a get-tough approach. The next one should include a get-treatment approach.
The numbers, as usual, are distressing. Texas DWI deaths have dropped slightly in recent years, but we remain No. 1 in that sad statistic. Last year, 1,269 people died in DWI-related wrecks in the state.
It’s time, the Senate Criminal Justice Committee concluded at a Thursday hearing, to consider changes. The system, according to Chairman John Whitmire, DHouston, is broken.
Here’s an idea: How about a system in which drunken drivers pay to support trauma care. Good idea, isn’t it? Yeah, that’s what lawmakers thought when they enacted it in 2003. The $3,000 surcharge is levied on top of fines and court costs. A second conviction carries a $4,500 surcharge.
DWI offenders are about $54 million behind in payments.
The hammer in that program was supposed to have been barring driver’s license renewal for offenders behind in payments. Another good idea in practice that, because of folks’ willingness to drive without licenses or insurance, often is more problem than solution.
Whitmire’s committee fielded a variety of proposals, all worthy of consideration. But, as Austin Police Chief Art Acevedo testified, the best approach to DWI is to prevent it. Acevedo, who favors sobriety checkpoints and mandatory blood tests for suspected drunken drivers, said treatment programs for first-time offenders should be part of any DWI law revisions.
“We are waiting way too long to intervene. If we can’t intervene in people’s lives, we can’t change their behavior,” Acevedo said, noting that intervention must “start with the first arrest.”
It’s an unavoidable truth that that first arrest most likely does not coincide with the first drunken-driving episode.
Mothers Against Drunk Driving is among the groups backing sobriety checkpoints and ignition interlock systems that would prevent DWI offenders from firing up their vehicles if they are drunk.
Sobriety checkpoints are touchy. Too intrusive, some say, but 39 states use them. Texas senators approved the concept last year, but the measure died in the House.
Is it unfair to randomly stop vehicles to see whether drivers are impaired? That’s a tough call, but is it any more unfair than requiring everybody to go through a metal detector at the airport? We want to hear more discussion on this one.
But we, like several senators at the hearing, are sure of one thing: Treatment — in concert with appropriate punishment and penalty — must be part of the program.
Sen. Kel Seliger, R-Amarillo, told colleagues that the get-tough approach doesn’t get us where we want to go.
“Right now, we take someone off the streets with a disease and put then in prison for five years. When they get out, they still have the disease (and) we have a drunk driver with a record,” he said.
“The question is, when do the people of the state pay more for an offense than the person who committed it?” he asked, pinpointing the current law’s shortcomings.
Punishment is an ex post facto strategy. Punishment with treatment might prevent another round of punishment, as well as DWI’s heart-wrenching collateral damage.