Would ‘super drunk’ drivers in Va. be empowered by repealing mandatory minimum sentences?

As lawmakers in Virginia’s General Assembly advance bills to eliminate mandatory minimum sentences for all but the most serious crimes, anti-drunk driving advocates fear a new law would empower the worst of the commonwealth’s serial drunken drivers.

“It’s obviously part of a larger, sweeping criminal justice reform effort, and we don’t want to step in the way of that,” said Kurt Erickson, president of the Washington Regional Alcohol Program. “We’re not opposing the bill in its entirety — we don’t want to throw the baby out with the bathwater.”

However, Erickson said one effect of getting rid of mandatory minimums for all but Class 1 felonies is that “it also eliminates the mandatory minimum sentences for some of the worst drunk drivers” — often referred to as ‘super drunk’ drivers.

Erickson said the current mandatory minimums have been an effective deterrent.

“Let’s say you’re driving two times above the legal limit [of 0.08 blood alcohol content], right now it’s a mandatory minimum of five days in jail.”

“If you’re at 0.2, you’re looking at a mandatory 10 days in jail,” Erickson said.

For repeat offenders, Erickson a person who receives two convictions within five years gets a mandatory 20 days in jail, while a person who gets two convictions within 10 years will serve 10 days behind bars.

WRAP, AAA in Virginia, Mothers Against Drunk Driving and the Foundation for Advancing Alcohol Responsibility have sent a letter to the House of Delegates’ Courts of Justice Committee members, asking to preserve hard-earned mandatory sentences for certain people who have been convicted of drunken driving offenses.

“More than two-thirds of drivers involved in fatal crashes in this country had a blood alcohol concentration of 0.15 or higher,” said Erickson. “And the drivers involved in fatal crashes are four times more likely to have a prior DUI conviction than were sober drivers.”

Earlier, Sen. John Edwards, D-Roanoke, chairman of the committee and author of Senate Bill 1443, said judges would continue to have the discretion to impose harsh sentences, as warranted.

Erickson said judicial discretion has never been effective in keeping the public safe from repeat drunken drivers.

“It’s been a slap on the wrist for so many years. In Maryland, they have ‘probation before judgment’ sentences that are handed out like candy,” Erickson said.

“We’re still losing somebody in a drunk driving crash, every 33 hours in the state of Virginia,” Erickson said. “And, you have a governor [Ralph Northam] who in December talked about that drunk driving fatalities increased in the COVID-era in Virginia.”

Senate Bill 1443 passed the Senate last week. While the date hasn’t been set, the Courts of Justice Committee will likely take up House Bill 2331 next week.

Neal Augenstein

Neal Augenstein has been a general assignment reporter with WTOP since 1997. He says he looks forward to coming to work every day, even though that means waking up at 3:30 a.m.

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