If you've read this far in today's Howard County Sun, you've noticed that when it comes to doing time for the crime, as the saying goes, drunken drivers in this county are largely exempt.

Not contesting a ticket for driving 9 miles an hour over the speed limit usually plants a point on your driver's license and a higher figure on your insurance premium. But pleading guilty to drunken driving here is not particularly likely to get you either. That ought to be an eye-opener, at the very least.

It's obvious that alcoholics need treatment and that social drinkers who are plain stupid need to be educated. But when did you hear of a rapist getting probation before judgment and sentenced to a support group for therapy? And on his second rape conviction? After all, anyone who commits a crime has a good case for claiming to have some sort of problem that would be helped by receiving treatment or education.

Last spring, a judge here sentenced a bricklayer to 15 days in jail for illegal possession of a handgun and traces of marijuana, noting that other circumstances of the man's arrest indicated he might be dealing drugs. The wisdom of that punishment aside, what the judge essentially said was that this person might be a menace to society.

Yet two-thirds of the drunken drivers who come before this judge leave with probation before judgment -- which doesn't much taint their records, just trims their bank accounts to pay their lawyers. What's the judge saying here?

A few years ago, I sat in a Virginia courtroom while an alcoholic was pleading for clemency. Only because he was a problem drinker did he rob --strong-arm and with a weapon -- several passers-by.

The judge took a dim view of this man's violent Buddy-can-you-spare-a-dime / the-devil-made-me-do-it approach to funding an addiction. Responding with a prison term, the judge explained to the defendant that although alcoholics have a physiological need to consume alcohol, they have no similar need to rob passers-by.

And they have no need to drive drunk and get away with it.

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