Every night, people sit in restaurants and bars drinking alcohol. At some point they do a quick introspection. Do they think themselves fit to drive home? In most cases, they answer the question positively, The more drunk the potential driver, the more confident he or she feels about being able to get home safely. But what starts off as a good time having a meal and a drink can quickly turn into a nightmare. The statistics show someone is killed in a crash involving alcohol every fifty-one minutes. On its own, this is a distressing number. But when you consider that each such death is avoidable. All it would have taken is the decision to have a sober friend drive home or get into a taxi. Now add in all the other people involved. The seriously injured or dead have families, relatives and friends. Their lives are also affected. When drunk drivers strike, they take away a part of the lives in the broader community. But when the drunk driver receives his or her punishment in the courts, the scales of justice rarely balance. Suppose the driver has left a child permanently disabled. That child may have forty or more years of life left. Is a five-year jail term a balancing punishment? Asking the question in a more general way: What is the right punishment for a driver who voluntarily consumes alcohol and then drives recklessly?
Criminologists who study this problem point out the wildly inconsistent approaches to sentencing not just between states, but also between counties. Because of this, the majority of drivers are not deterred from drunk driving. There’s only a low chance of being caught — states do not allocate serious money to enforcement. Even if caught, there’s only a low chance of a penal sentence. In a significant number of cases, the prosecution is thrown out. The defense attorneys have proved very effective in finding mistakes in the procedures followed by the arresting officers. DAs make mistakes as well. As a result, between 60 and 70% of drunk drivers are repeat offenders.
So would a mandatory jail sentence imposed by a federal law help deter drunk driving? Although the sentence is only a token ten days, Arizona sends every individual convicted of DUI to jail. The state’s approach gives drunks a quick taste of what it will be like if they are caught again. This would be a good strategy if research did not show, on average, that drivers make about eighty journeys while drunk before they are caught. The libertarian approach has failed when it comes to this offense. States should no longer tolerate allowing people to do as they please. The approach should not be live and let die. What then should the federal government do? Simply sending people to jail does not cure addiction to alcohol. So courts should retain the discretion to look at the offender and make treatment orders for offenses where no one was injured, reserving the more serious penalties to the cases where there are serious injuries or death. Justice requires the courts to be fair to all. That means being fair to the families devastated and keeping the roads safe for all other drivers.