Is Delaware too easy on drunk drivers?

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NewsWorks contributor John Watson offers his thoughts on the imposition of stronger penalties for repeat DUI offenders.

Here are John’s thoughts:

Why is it that the very thought of the imposing the death penalty for repeat DUI offenders never occurs to our lawmakers? 

It seems to me that we should be tired of DUI by now. However, attorney Christopher Baxter, who teaches a DUI law course at the Widener University School of Law, makes a good point about this.

Of the 2,952 people convicted in Delaware for DUI in 2012, a dozen had seven or more previous convictions going back to 1996, according to the Delaware Criminal Justice Information System.

Seven or more DUI convictions leads to the maximum penalty in the First State, which is a $15,000 fine and a 15-year sentence. 

Did you get that? They could serve their time in jail, repeat their DUI and potentially kill someone with their vehicle. A death penalty sentence is off the table.

It would not be off the table if firearms were involved. As we all know, the death penalty law is often invoked in those cases.

Is that fair? No. But our law makers can’t see that for some reason.

Live and drink and kill

The News Journal tells us about Danielle M. Foster, who was convicted of DUI in 2009 and was found guilty twice for driving without a license. 

In 2011, while driving in Wilmington, she plowed into a car at the intersection of Fourth and Lincoln streets, killing two children who were inside the vehicle. Foster is now serving a 23.5-year prison sentence.

Now, I’m not a blood-thirsty person, but there comes a time when we need to rid ourselves of those who pose a danger to the rest of us. If someone kills with a gun, there are laws that could give them a life sentence or invoke the death penalty.

But with DUI cases there are no thoughts of getting rid of dangerous people who live and drink and kill.

While stronger penalties could be desirable, improvements in the law have been made, largely because of the hard work of such groups as MADD and AAA Mid-Atlantic, who have lobbied for toughened penalties for DUI.

Jim Lardear, AAA Mid-Atlantic’s director of Public and Government Affairs said that trends are “going in the right direction” in terms of accidents, DUI arrests and injuries and fatal crashes.

However, he noted the high percent of people killed in DUI accidents in Delaware last year: 43 percent of fatal accidents were caused by DUI. He said the statistics should improve this year.

Along with legislative efforts, technology is making strides in preventing DUI, such as the ignition interlock device that prevents cars from starting if the driver has been drinking. An ignition interlock device bill is proposed in the state’s General Assembly. 

Mothers Against Drunk Drivers National President Jan Withers testified before the assembly in support of requiring all DUI offenders to have the device in their car for at least four months.

Currently the device is required for repeat offenders and those found with a blood alcohol level of 0.15 or more. 

Crime and no punishment?

A special Delaware DUI Court begins in September, and retired Superior Court Judge Richard Gebelein will help get it started. Gebelein has said that they want to bring an opportunity for DUI offenders to get treatment for their alcohol addiction.

Others favor punishment over treatment.

State Rep. Helene Keeley was quoted as saying, “Do we say, ‘Lock them up and throw away the key?’ Maybe we should.”

Keeley has sponsored several bills dealing with the DUI issue. She agrees that people with addictions must get the needed treatment so they won’t offend again.

But, Keeley is also concerned about judges. She wants them to take offender’s previous records into account before sentencing someone to a minimal prison term.

Keely notes that new laws help to ensure that people who are sentenced for a DUI are not able to plead to lesser charges.

“I think that’s part of the reason we are seeing a larger amount of multiple offenders, because they can’t plea it down any more,” she said.

Despite this attention from state officials, DUI offenders can still kill and get off with a light sentence, sometimes as little as one year.

The News Journal reported that 34-year-old Andrew R. Ronkins served a whopping one year for killing his 20-year-old passenger. He was reportedly drunk and speeding at the time.

Is that all a life is worth? One year in jail for taking a life while driving drunk. Something is wrong with that picture to me. What about you? Can someone please explain why killing with a gun is much more likely to get a long prison term, or possibly the death penalty?

It won’t happen if your weapon is a car.

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