The Carroll County Times' editorial board recently published an editorial titled "Sentencing guidelines should be more stringent." The piece, inspired by relatively short jail sentences given to a number of individuals convicted of vehicular homicide while driving impaired, calls for mandatory minimum sentences for such an offense. The impulse to be hard on those who cause unimaginable pain for innocent individuals and families is understandable, but a new mandatory sentencing law is a bad idea.
In the wake of a tragedy, it is easy to argue as the Times' board does that a drunk driver whose actions resulted in a fatality deserves more than nine months in jail. But lawmakers need to be guided by data and evidence when setting policies that will affect thousands of state residents.
Before rushing to pass a new mandatory sentence, lawmakers must ask some hard questions. For example, what is the appropriate amount of time individuals who commit a given crime should serve? Who is best positioned to make these decisions, legislators or judges who know the facts of each case? What if the driver is 18, with an otherwise bright future ahead of them but for this tragic mistake? What if the drunk driver stops to assist the victim, calls the police and turns herself in? What if this is the driver's first and only criminal offense in an otherwise stellar, successful life? And what if the victim's family doesn't want the mandatory minimum sentence, but prefers restitution, alcohol abuse treatment and community service rather than derailing the offender's life with a long prison sentence, as this family in Pennsylvania did?
The problem with the board's idea is the same as for all one-size-fits-all solutions to crime. Crime is far too complex, and individual offenders too unique, to create one standard punishment for everyone, regardless of what victims or offenders need. Our country has been experimenting with mandatory minimums for decades, and throughout all of the studies of their effectiveness one dominant theme emerges: They simply do not work.
Study after study shows that the certainty of being caught, not the severity of the punishment, is what deters individuals from committing a crime. This is why drivers speed on an empty highway regardless of what a ticket may cost them, but slow down when they see a police car on the side of the road. This law of deterrence plays out quite clearly in the body of research conducted on methods to combat drunk driving. Studies conducted on the effectiveness of police checkpoints, which are designed to patrol areas with high probability of impaired driving, have found that these checkpoints have decreased fatal injury crashes by as much as 36 percent.
Comparatively, numerous multistate studies have been unable to link a significant decrease in traffic fatalities to mandatory sentences for drunken driving. One study concludes that mandatory sentences for DUIs "should be considered more as an incapacitant for multiple-offending recidivists than a general deterrent." Furthermore, research has shown promising results for front-end, non-criminal justice interventions such as mandated server training in establishments that serve alcohol. A study of Oregon's mandatory server training laws found it led to a significant decrease in single-vehicle, nighttime crashes.
The editorial board notes that Maryland does not currently have mandatory minimums for this offense and is one of four states with a maximum penalty of less than 10 years, per a 2012 report from Mothers Against Drunk Driving. Statistics from the same year show Maryland in the bottom third of the United States in drunk-driving deaths, with 2.7 per 100,000 people. Meanwhile, Montana and North Dakota, with maximum sentences of 30 years and 20 years respectively, have the nation's highest drunk driving death rates. Long sentences don't guarantee safe highways — and simply wishing otherwise doesn't make it so.
Deaths caused at the hands of impaired drivers are unfathomable tragedies. This is why we cannot turn to ineffective policies when addressing this problem. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention publishes evidence based approaches to reducing drunken driving accidents. Mandatory minimum sentencing laws are noticeably absent from the CDC's list. In 2016, the Maryland legislature passed bi-partisan sentencing reform designed to lower mandatory minimums and mitigate the harmful effects they have on families. The nation is turning away from mandatory minimums because they simply do not work. Maryland should keep this in mind when addressing the issue of drunken driving fatalities.
Kevin Ring is the president of Families Against Mandatory Minimums. He lives in Montgomery County.