Tougher DUI law may further inflate county jail numbers

Published 12:00 am Wednesday, August 7, 2002

Freeborn County law enforcement officials are trying to assess the impact of new legislation that imposes tougher penalties on DUI offenders, and a prime concern is how the new law will affect the inmate population of a jail that is already overcrowded.

The new law makes the fourth offense within 10 years a felony. It means, theoretically, an offender with no other prior criminal history would be sent to a state prison for up to three years. But, under sentencing guidelines, the prison time is most likely to be stayed. Instead, the penalty would be 180 days in a county jail, plus probation.

The jail sentences will not necessarily add congestion to the jail, Assistant County Attorney David Walker said. Under the previous statute, the fourth DUI offense was charged as a gross misdemeanor with a mandatory minimum of 180 days in jail, he explained. So, in terms of the time in jail, there would be no difference.

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But, Walker anticipates the possibility of higher bail amounts, a longer legal process and longer probation periods as a result of the felony classification, and those factors would probably increase the jail population.

In DUI cases, the bail amount is at the discretion of the judge, but it is typically $12,000 without conditions or much lower with conditions, like requirements to report to the jail or home monitoring. The felony classification would push up the price and make the conditions more strict, which may drive some offenders to choose to stay in the jail instead of getting out on bail.

Currently, most DUI offenders plead guilty, and only a few stand a trial. But that could change, because a felony conviction, unlike a misdemeanor, is accompanied with some restrictions on civil rights, including the right to vote and possess firearms, Walker pointed out.

Whether entering a guilty plea or choosing a trial, sentencing in a felony case requires a pre-sentencing investigation by the Department of Corrections, which often takes a long time.

The theory is that the tougher penalties would deter DUI offenses from occurring, and thus contribute to reducing the inmate population.

But Walker is uncertain about the effect. &uot;DUI is not a type of crime that people calculate before committing,&uot; said Walker. &uot;A man takes a drink. The drink takes the man. And the man takes wheels. That how it happens.&uot;

Mothers against Drunk Driving, organization advocating safe driving, estimates 16,600 crashes in the state involved alcohol in 1997. Alcohol-related accidents cost the public more than $1.5 billion, the organization calculates.