Tuesday, August 4, 2009

Tennessee has high rate of repeat DUI arrests

Debate swirls around drunken driving laws By Chris Echegaray • THE TENNESSEAN • August 4, 2009 Betty Campbell was tired of the cycle: arrested for drunken driving, incarcerated and released, only to do it again. She was arrested 13 times before she began to receive treatment through a court program, she said. "I just wanted to experience life sober," she said during a break from her job tagging clothes at a Goodwill center in Nashville. "I don't want to go back to that. I would tell people to get help." Campbell's battle with alcoholism, and specifically drunken driving, is emblematic of the recidivism rate for DUI offenders. A five-year Tennessee Bureau of Investigation study released Monday shows that 21 percent of people — nearly 30,000 — charged with DUI were arrested again on the same charge. That's the highest rate of repeat arrests found in the TBI report, which compared recidivism for DUI, robbery and rape. There were 137,183 people arrested and charged with DUI statewide between 2002-07. There were 11,549 arrests for robberies during that same period, and a 16 percent rate of recidivism. Rape had the lowest recidivism rate in the study at 6 percent, among 3,483 arrests. The report was funded by a federal grant, TBI spokeswoman Kristin Helm said. Part of the reason for the high rate of repeat DUIs is that jail sentences for convictions tend to be less severe than for the other crimes. "Remember, robbery and rape usually receive longer sentences upon conviction," Helm said. The problem with drunken driving stems from lack of treatment and enforcement, said Dr. Paul Juarez, vice-chairman of the Department of Family and Community Medicine at Meharry Medical College. "We are short on both," Juarez said. "There has to be a balance. You have alcoholics and binge drinkers. A binge drinker may or may not be an alcoholic. I am not surprised at the (recidivism) rate. Drunk driving has been tolerated for a long time." 80% aren't re-arrested Some criminologists look at the DUI data from a different point of view. Because most people who are charged with DUI are not re-arrested, law enforcement has been successful, said Gary Jensen, a criminologist at Vanderbilt University. "Twenty-one percent of people who are arrested for DUI are re-arrested," Jensen wrote in an e-mail. "However, said another way, nearly eighty percent of people arrested for DUI are not arrested again…this statistic may indicate that arrest is effective." But advocates for stricter DUI penalties say the report shows the law does not work. The advocacy group Mothers Against Drunk Driving wants a mandatory device that's installed into the starting circuit of a vehicle and requires those who have been convicted of a single DUI to pass a Breathalyzer test before being able to drive. "Our biggest push is to eliminate drunk driving," said Laura Dial, Tennessee's executive director for MADD. "The campaign is really hinged on one issue: People drive drunk because they can. The laws are not effective with habitual offenders." In Tennessee, drunken driving convictions for a first offense carry jail sentences between 24 hours to 11 months, and fines of $350 to $1,500. By the fourth offense, the charge carries a one-year jail term, fines ranging $3,000-$15,000, and requires offenders to install an interlock device at their own expense. Long battle with alcoholCampbell, who has battled alcoholism since she was a child, said she agrees that DUI laws don't prevent inebriated people from driving. The last time Campbell was arrested was for having an open container in the car she was driving with a canceled license in 2005. Her first DUI was in 1990 stemming from an alcohol problem that spiraled out of control. She had smoked marijuana at 6 and later started drinking. Campbell said she bottomed out when she was left homeless, sleeping under bridges or, if she was lucky, on a friend's couch. She was able to turn her life around through a drug court program and at Goodwill Industries, a nonprofit organization that helps the disadvantaged with training, education, and career services. "This gave me structure," she said. "It gave me a will to stay sober." To get her license re-instated, it will cost Campbell $4,000, she said. "It's going to be a while," she said. "I'm in no hurry. I love the bus."

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