OPINION Liberals get creative with drunk driving penalties, says Paul Willcocks. Smarter, tougher enforcement
VICTORIA – I learned to scorn mandatory jail sentences when the young guy that I’d seen at church with his wife and two little girls got five years.
He’d taken over the family business – a big responsibility for a young man – and it was failing. And one desperate morning he decided to rob a bank. He was arrested within 25 minutes, after police followed him from the bank back to the shop.
The mandatory minimum for armed robbery was five years, with no flexibility allowed. So that’s what he got.
What he did was wrong. But that was a sentence that did nothing for society, him or his little girls.
It’s still a popular solution to every social or criminal problem that comes along. Make the penalties tougher, and take away the courts’ discretion to consider the benefits of alternatives.
But the get-tough methods don’t work. And in fact, they can have quite the opposite effect.
That’s why the Liberal plan to get tough on impaired driving actually includes lighter penalties for people who get behind the wheel drunk.
Politicians have made drunk driving laws tougher. The penalties – especially the provisions for licence suspensions – have grown more punitive and less flexible. The idea was that tough punishment would keep impaired drivers off the road.
But things rarely work out as planned. Economists call it the law of unintended consequences; in trying to accomplish one goal, we actually produce quite different results.
So it’s been with impaired driving. We made penalties tougher, raising fines and lengthening licence suspensions, and took away judges’ ability to be flexible in imposing them.
But the penalties became so severe that more and more people decided it was worth pleading not guilty and going to trial. Even if they lost, they would have 18 months of creeping through the process to prepare for the loss of their licence.
As a result police had to put more time into gathering information before charges were laid, so they would be ready for a trial. The cases crowded the courts, with 25 per cent of provincial court trial time taken up with impaired driving cases.
So police and prosecutors started looking to alternatives to criminal charges, like 24-hour roadside suspensions. And the number of impaired charges dropped.
The get-tough changes actually made the punishment less severe.
Consider the numbers. Last year about 560,000 people in B.C. drove while impaired. Only 50,000 of those were caught by police.
Only 10 per cent of those people were hit with a criminal charge. Police dealt with 90 per cent of impaired drivers by imposing a 24-hour licence suspension.
That means about 4,500 people ended up facing criminal charges. Almost a third weren’t convicted. So only about 3,000 people ended up being handed one of those tougher penalties. The changes actually reduced the real consequences for drunk drivers.
Solicitor General Rich Coleman proposes to change that by introducing new provincial offences carrying penalties more severe than a 24-hour suspension, but lighter than Criminal Code sanctions. Fines may be lower, and licence suspensions shorter and more flexible. (You might be allowed to drive to work, for example.)
Repeat offenders or those in crashes could expect Criminal Code charges.
But most people would face lesser charges, with penalties much like we used to impose for impaired driving before sanctions were toughened.
The proposed shift to lighter penalties is still a proposal, part of a package of changes proposed by Coleman and now awaiting public comment.
But they will likely go ahead, along with mandatory education or rehab programs for offenders, a requirement already in place in every other province.
It’s a useful lesson. Smarter, targeted enforcement and education are what’s needed, despite the political appeal of tougher penalties.
Footnote: Most of the proposed changes make sense, but not all. Coleman
announced last week that people who receive two 24-hour roadside
suspensions within two years could lose their licence for 90 days. Those
suspensions are handed out by police, without a court hearing. The
longer suspension isn’t mandatory, but it remains too severe a penalty
to impose without giving the driver the opportunity for a full hearing.