Jail Space Must Be Part Of The Drunk Driving Debate

jail

I’ve been pretty critical of the “get tougher” approach many state leaders seem to be taking in response media hype that has created the perception that North Dakota has a worsening drunk driving problem (something not actually born out by the data). We’ve increased DUI arrests in North Dakota by 53% since 2001 with zero impact on alcohol-related fatalities and accidents.

Maybe “get tough” doesn’t actually work.

But setting that question aside for a moment, there’s another consideration to keep in mind: If we start putting more DUI offenders in jail, where are we going to find room?

Legislation proposed by state Republican Rep. Kim Koppelman, and backed by Governor Jack Dalrymple and Attorney General Wayne Stenehjem, would mandate a minimum of four days in jail for first-time offenders. Democrat Rep. Ed Gruchalla is proposing penalties that are even more draconian, to an absurd degree, which would mandate 30 days in jail for a first time offender, and six months in jail for a second time offender.

When I interviewed Koppelman about the legislation earlier this week, he told me that mandatory jail time for first-time offenders was an important part of the bill as he feels spending some time in jail might help the seriousness of DUI crimes sink in.

Maybe that’s right, but it’s also going to mean big new burdens for the state’s jails if all 6,000 – 7,000 DUI offenders convicted in the state annually have to spend at least four days, or thirty days, in jail.

“[Ward County] Sheriff Steve Kukowski says jails throughout the state of North Dakota are already at maximum capacity,” reports KXMC News. That’s not a surprising problem for a state that just posted the fastest population growth rate in the nation, but saddling DUI offenders with mandatory jail time is going to exacerbate the problem in a big way.

It’s hard to imagine legislation backed by Governor Dalrymple and Attorney General Stenehjem failing, especially when addressing emotionally-charged issue which tends to bring out the Do Something attitude from the public, but if the fiscal note detailing the cost of these bills is anything close to accurate, and includes the cost of impact to local government in terms of increased jail needs, it may give many legislators pause.

Rob Port is the editor of SayAnythingBlog.com. In 2011 he was a finalist for the Watch Dog of the Year from the Sam Adams Alliance and winner of the Americans For Prosperity Award for Online Excellence. In 2013 the Washington Post named SAB one of the nation's top state-based political blogs, and named Rob one of the state's best political reporters. He writes a weekly column for several North Dakota newspapers, and also serves as a policy fellow for the North Dakota Policy Council.

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