Prison for Texas DWI: Is There a Less Costly Way to Protect Us?
A discussion is going on in Texas about a problem that spans social, legal, economic, and even medical issues: does it make sense to incarcerate Texas DWI offenders by the thousand, year after year?
Some repeat Texas DWI offenders – the most serious ones – are serving sentences of 30 or even 40 years. Altogether some 6,000 inmates in the Texas prison system are there because of alcohol-related offenses. It’s a costly way to keep drunk drivers off the roads.
Stiff Sentences: Not Arbitrary
Texas is not alone in having a hard time with very serious multiple repeat drunk driving offenders. When a person has paid fines, spent time in jail, sometimes many times over many years, what can a judge do to prevent this person from getting behind the wheel again? Knowing that these people will reoffend and possibly injure or kill someone means that long sentences, though they appear desperate, are not arbitrary: judges simply don’t know what else to do. The likelihood that these offenders will drive drunk again is pretty much one hundred percent.
Alternatives to Incarceration for Texas DWI
It’s worth reviewing the other methods that courts use to deal with DWIs. Some are punitive, some preventive, but all are attempts to solve a persistent public health problem:
- License suspension. This is the almost universal automatic punishment for DWI that courts and DMVs impose. The problem is, it works mostly for people who are inclined to obey the law, and who do not have alcohol issues. Studies show that half to three-quarters of suspended drivers get behind the wheel despite license revocation.
- Vehicle impoundment. This has the advantage of making it more difficult for a repeat drunk driver to reoffend, but you can’t impound a vehicle forever, and if you did, the driver would write it off and find a new one.
- Fines. Adding to the cost of a DWI with fines and fees is punitive in nature, but it only seems to dissuade people who do not have a problem with driving sober in the first place, i.e., offenders who really did make a mistake and do not intend to repeat it. Fines also punish the poor disproportionately.
- Jail. Drunk driving is a criminal act, and jail terms are sometimes called for. Many states mandate a short jail stay (e.g. 24 hours) to give an offender a sense of the criminality of their act. Long-term prison is expensive to society, and it’s very hard to restore one’s life after a long sentence. As a result, long sentences are usually reserved for incorrigible repeat offenders and those who have injured or killed others.
- Ignition Interlocks. Technology has provided a solution that actually prevents drunk drivers from starting their vehicles. This breathalyzer-like device takes a breath sample, and shuts off the ignition if the one tested has a blood alcohol concentration (BAC) over a set amount, usually around .02.
What Makes Ignition Interlocks Different
The advantages of an ignition interlock are that it’s paid for by the offender, rather than the state. Users pay a monthly fee of $80 to $100, and they must bring the vehicle in regularly so the device data can be downloaded and sent to monitoring authorities. Also, it allows an offender to keep a job, raise a family, or get an education, all the while keeping them from driving drunk.
Most relevant to the discussion at hand, an ignition interlock can be applied for years, or even a lifetime, to keep the driver, passengers, and others on the road safe.
There is a place for prison, and certain Texas DWI offenders need to be locked up. But a 2012 Pew study found that imprisoning an inmate costs $1,783 a month – quite a bit higher than the average two-bedroom apartment rental in Dallas.
If a better solution for repeat DWI offenders could take all but the most lethal of repeat offenders and keep them sober behind the wheel, all Texans would be better off. Fortunately, that solution exists. Strong, well-enforced ignition interlock laws are the answer to the state’s expensive DWI problem.