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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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Drunken driving felony costly fix

The Spokesman-Review

Washington state can’t afford to squander money, but it can’t afford to squander Washingtonians either. That presents a dilemma.

Washington is one of a handful of states that allow drunken drivers one offense after another without reaching the felony level. No matter how many times you climb behind the wheel, buzzed silly on a half-dozen highballs or a couple of pitchers of beer, the worst you’re risking is a misdemeanor conviction and, at most, a year in jail.

Actually, that’s not quite true. If you happen to kill or injure someone, you could face a more serious charge. But for drunken driving alone, a misdemeanor is it. At most a year in jail, but probably much less. Some fines and fees. Some embarrassment. That’s about it, no matter how many times you reoffend.

Some people, including state Rep. John Ahern, R-Spokane, want to change that. Ahern has crafted legislation that he’ll put before the House again next January to make it a felony to be convicted three times within seven years of driving under the influence of alcohol or other drugs.

There’s resistance, however, and for understandable reasons. Sending drunken drivers to prison means there must be prison space to accommodate them, as many as 1,000 beds that the state doesn’t have. In all, it could cost state taxpayers some $225 million in the first two years, analysts estimate.

That’s a lot. Is it worth it, though, if that’s what it takes to get the worst offenders out of circulation and scare the impressionable ones into more responsible behavior?

Using other strategies, Washington has been making headway, steadily lowering its DUI rates through education and training and creative penalties such as interlocking ignitions that require a motorist to blow a satisfactory breathalyzer before the car will start. But Washington’s impaired-driving levels have been so high, compared with other states, that even substantial improvement only brings us to about the national average.

The nonprison tactics, having proved effective, should be sustained, but for imbibing drivers who just don’t respond to the gentle touch – the motorists most likely to kill someone – there should be a more extreme measure. Emphasizing education and other prevention approaches will minimize the number of people who fall under the felony provision, driving down the percentage of those for whom the felony option is necessary.

All governmental actions incur costs. Deciding which ones to fund is what priority-setting is all about.

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