HD4 - Effectiveness of Existing Punishments and Recommendations for Additional Remedies for Driving While Intoxicated

    Executive Summary:
    House Joint Resolution 35, introduced by Delegate David B. Albo and passed during the 2006 Virginia General Assembly Session, directed the Virginia State Crime Commission to study the effectiveness of existing punishments and to recommend additional remedies for driving while intoxicated.

    Specifically, the resolution directs the Commission to study the effectiveness of existing punishments by comparing current DUI rates to past rates and by determination of the degree to which offenders suffer multiple convictions and by use of any other appropriate punishment effectiveness measurement methodology adopted by the Commission and recommend additional remedies for the offense of driving while intoxicated, if appropriate.

    In 2004, the General Assembly enacted significant changes to Virginia’s DUI statutes by increasing the penalty for driving under the influence, lowering the blood alcohol level for which mandatory sentences are imposed, and adopting other measures to punish drinking and driving. First, the General Assembly increased the amount of mandatory minimum time that was to be imposed for a conviction of a second or third offense DUI. (Mandatory minimum time is time that must be imposed by a judge, and cannot be suspended). A second DUI offense in five years now results in a mandatory minimum sentence of twenty days, instead of the previous five days; a third offense in ten years now results in a mandatory minimum sentence of ninety days, instead of the previous ten days; and the mandatory minimum sentence for a third offense in five years is now six months, instead of the previous thirty days.

    Second, the General Assembly lowered the blood alcohol level at which additional mandatory minimum sentences would be imposed. Previously, these additional punishments were triggered when the defendant had a BAC of .20 or higher. As a result of the 2004 enactments, they are now required whenever a defendant’s BAC is .15 or higher.

    Finally, additional measures were enacted which were intended to increase the punishment that repeat offenders could receive. The changes to the law allowed the Commonwealth to seize a defendant’s car in a forfeiture proceeding for a third DUI offense occurring within ten years. Immediately after an arrest for a DUI, a defendant’s driver’s license is administratively suspended for seven days; this time period was increased to sixty days if the defendant is arrested for a second offense, and until the time of trial for a third offense. A presumption against bail was created for all defendants arrested for a third DUI within five years. And, if a person is driving on a restricted license due to a previous DUI conviction, a BAC of .02 will result in a new criminal offense. These penalty increases and enhancements went into effect on July 1, 2004. In order to ascertain what impact they have had on the recidivism rates for DUI offenders, the number of convictions for first, second, and third DUI offenses were compared from 2002 through to 2005 (the last year for which complete numbers are available). In addition, information was obtained from the Virginia Alcohol Safety Action Program regarding the various treatment programs offered to DUI offenders.

    The data does show that there were fewer convictions for second and third offense drunk driving charges in 2005, as compared to 2004. Because this data reveals recidivism rates for only a one year period, it is possible that other factors are responsible for the lower numbers. Staff has concluded that it is not possible to definitively state, with methodological rigor, that the more severe punishments are causing recidivism for drunk driving to decline. Whether the lower numbers for DUI convictions will continue, or whether 2004 will come to be seen as an unusual year in which the number of DUI incidents was lower than normal, remains to be determined.

    Additionally, there are many factors that contribute to the total number of DUI incidents occurring during a given year. The number of law enforcement officers assigned to patrol for drunk drivers, the number of DUI checkpoints established throughout the state, and the number of public service announcements on radio and television cautioning people to avoid drunk driving, all may impact DUI rates. The types of counseling and treatment given to people convicted of a first DUI may have even more of an impact on their future behavior than the amount of punishment they receive. Attempting to objectively discern what precise variables are having the most measurable effects on lowering DUI rates is extremely difficult.

    While the initial data for the past year, with the lower DUI figures, is encouraging, it is too soon to draw any firm conclusions as to whether this is due to the changes made to the DUI statutes in 2004. Until data is available for at least four to six years, it is not possible to assess whether those changes are responsible for lowering recidivism rates. Nevertheless, the initial data is promising, and the Crime Commission intends to continue monitoring DUI rates on an annual basis to see if the downward trend continues.

    The Crime Commission does not intend to submit further reports for publication.