OLYMPIA – Half a dozen times a month, speaking before people arrested for drunken or drugged driving, Anita Kronvall relives the 2002 death of her daughter. She describes how a drugged driver’s car slammed into her daughter’s Mustang in Spokane Valley, killing the young mother of two.
This week, in flat, matter-of-fact tones, Kronvall told the story again to Washington state lawmakers.
“To me, it seems like forever since Carla was killed,” she told them. “It is my dream that this pass.”
“This” is House Bill 3076, which would make it a felony to repeatedly drive under the influence of alcohol or drugs. It would make it far more likely that chronic drunks who drive would go to state prison for more than a year, proponents say, instead of serving short stints – or virtually no time at all – in county jails.
Despite several failed attempts in previous years, key lawmakers say the bill has good odds this year.
“It’s a long-time-coming bill to get the drunks off the road,” said Rep. John Ahern, R-Spokane, the prime sponsor of HB 3076.
As things stand now, proponents say, no matter how many times a person’s been caught, DUI is now a gross misdemeanor with a maximum penalty of a year in jail.
“This is a real focused effort to get those really bad actors off the road and into treatment,” said committee chairwoman Rep. Pat Lantz, D-Gig Harbor. Unless the projected costs are huge – which Lantz said she doesn’t expect – she predicts that her House colleagues will approve the bill this year.
“I think we’re on our way,” she said. The state prosecutors association is among those backing the change.
House Speaker Frank Chopp said Wednesday that he, too, is supportive.
“I personally like it,” he said, calling the bill an example of Republicans and Democrats working together. “I think the current proposal makes sense.”
Ahern’s “four strikes, you’re out” bill would:
“Allow prosecutors to charge drivers with a Class C felony if they’ve had three or more DUIs within seven years. Under state sentencing guidelines, a drunken driver with three prior convictions would likely get a sentence of 15 to 20 months in prison.
“Limit time off for good behavior to one-third of that sentence, instead of the usual half.
“Require treatment in prison, with the offender paying, if possible.
Lawmakers balked at earlier two- and three-strikes versions of the bill, saying that they feared an expensive flood of drunken drivers in the state’s already overwhelmed prison system.
“It just broke the bank,” said Lantz.
At a hearing this week, Ahern cited examples of chronic drunken drivers – five convictions, 11 convictions – with relatively little jail time served. Washington is one of only three states, Ahern said, without a felony DUI law. In Idaho, legislative researcher Trudes Tango said, even a second DUI can be a felony if the driver has a very high blood alcohol level.
Ahern and Kronvall said lawmakers should look at the whole cost of drunken and drugged driving, not just the court and prison expenses.
“What is a life worth in Washington state?” Kronvall said.
“The No. 1 purpose of government is to protect the citizens,” said Ahern.
Despite the nearly four years since the death of her daughter, Kronvall said, the pain remains. And there are sharp little reminders all the time.
Two days before Christmas, she said, her granddaughter was really upset at school.
“Everyone else in the school was making things for their mom,” Kronvall said, her voice breaking.
The girl finally ended up making a card, which the family put at the site where Carla James’ ashes rest.
At the bottom of the card, the girl wrote a short sentence.
“I miss you, Mommy,” it read.
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