Mandatory Minimum Penalties: Their Effects on Crime, Sentencing Disparities, and Justice System Expenditures

5. The impact of mandatory minimum sentences (continued)

5. The impact of mandatory minimum sentences (continued)

5.3 Mandatory Sentences for Impaired Driving

In Canada, impaired driving infractions carry a minimum penalty of 14 days for a second conviction and 90 days for any subsequent conviction. While MMS in this area have proliferated in North America since 1980, few evaluations have assessed them directly.

There are indications that those committing this infraction may be sensitive to the certainty of punishment, as police crackdowns have been quite successful in reducing incidents of this offence (Sherman, 1990). Furthermore, research in which impaired driving scenarios were presented to subjects has shown that persons who perceived that sanctions were more certain or severe reported lower probabilities of their engaging in the behaviour (Nagin and Paternoster, 1993). At the same time, Taxman and Piquero (1998) have found that treatment-oriented sentences for impaired driving offenders may reduce recidivism rates more than punitive sentences. For first-time offenders, these investigators found that less formal punishment (e.g., probation terms in which convictions are expunged if successfully completed) was the most effective in deterring impaired driving. In general, isolating the effects of punishment versus treatment is rendered difficult by the infrequency of incapacitation for impaired drivers, as well as the fact that punitive sanctions often include education and treatment measures (Yu, 1994).

Nienstedt (1990) attempted to isolate the effects of a tough law from the effects of the publicity accompanying it using a sophisticated research design. The law in question was enacted in Arizona in 1982 and called for MMS, as well as a prohibition on diversion and plea bargaining in the case of impaired driving infractions. Five months before the enactment of the law, major media campaigns were initiated in Phoenix and Tucson, Arizona's two largest cities. Aside from advertisements in both the electronic and print media, the media campaign generated a flurry of articles and programs on the subject. The impaired driving initiative was also publicized through posters, billboards, brochures, and bumper stickers. The publicity not only featured the legislation that was about to be introduced but promised increased resources for traffic enforcement. No additional resources were actually allocated. The study revealed that the reduction of accidents, including those involving alcohol, was much greater following the publicity campaign than after the enactment of the impaired driving law. Furthermore, once the effect of the publicity was statistically controlled, the law's effect on accidents vanished. An analysis of the law's implementation showed that court backlogs undermined the law's prohibition of plea bargaining, as impaired driving offences were routinely reduced to loitering. The author concluded that publicity campaigns may be a less costly and more effective alternative to largely symbolic MMS.

Grasmick, Burski Jr., and Arneklev (1993) examined the relative importance of legal sanctions and moral prohibitions in curtailing impaired driving. They noted that moral crusades in the 1980s, spearheaded by groups such as MADD (Mothers Against Drunk Driving) and SADD (Students Against Drunk Driving), underscored the growing unacceptability of this activity. The researchers randomly sampled 332 Oklahoma City adults in 1982 and another 314 adults in 1990, probing their level of impaired driving, the shame associated with it, and their anticipated embarrassment if caught. The surveys revealed a significant decrease, from 1982 to 1990, in the number of respondents who had driven drunk in the last five years and who indicated they would do so in the future. Anticipated feelings of shame or remorse increased significantly. There was also an increase in the perceived certainty and severity of legal sanction, as well as some increase in the perceived certainty of embarrassment. While the threat of legal sanctions was found to be an important deterrent, anticipated shame was determined to be the primary deterrent.

Kenkel (1993) used data derived from the 1985 Health Interview Survey (US) to determine whether self-reported drinking and impaired driving patterns were related to state laws governing these behaviours. Nearly 12,000 males and 16,000 females participated in the survey. State laws, including MMS, were found to have a deterrent effect upon heavy drinking and impaired driving. States with tougher laws, more sobriety checks, and heavier taxes in relation to alcohol were characterized by lower levels of these behaviours.

Kingsnorth, Alvis and Gavia (1993) examined whether increases in the severity of penalties for impaired driving in Sacramento, California affected recidivism rates. Over 400 cases were examined for each of three years – 1980, 1984, and 1988. In 1980, there were no written court policies in dealing with impaired driving infractions. In 1984, MMS were introduced, including a combination of fines, jail time or license restriction, probation for a first offence, and a mandatory jail sentence and other enhancements for subsequent convictions. In 1988, the fines, financial penalties and other provisions became more severe than in 1984. The authors found that recidivism rates over the ten-year study period (1980-90) did not decline with the increasing severity of penalties.

Yu (1994) examined the files of almost fourteen thousand New York State drivers with an impaired driving conviction record in order to identify the sanctions most likely to exercise a deterrent effect. The author found that increases in fines reduced recidivism significantly. Yu found that license withdrawals, which were mandatory but could vary in length, did not show an effect on recidivism. He conjectured that license actions imposed fewer consequences on impaired drivers, as these measures would not necessarily prevent them from driving. Yu further found that the celerity or swiftness of punishment was not an important factor, as the intervals between arrest and conviction tended to be long. Also, he speculated that impaired driving was a unique offence in that repeat offenders, by virtue of their substance abuse, did not respond to swift punishment.

Grube and Kearney (1983) evaluated the impact of a two-day mandatory jail sentence, enacted in 1979 in Yakima County (Washington) for anyone convicted of impaired driving. They found that alcohol involvement in fatal accidents occurring in the county did not change significantly following the introduction of the MMS; nor was such involvement lower in the county than in the state as a whole. One reason cited for the apparent failure of the law to reduce the role of alcohol in fatal accidents was the finding that 40% of residents were unaware of the mandatory penalty.

Ross and Voas (1990) assessed the effects of sentence severity on impaired driving in the neighbouring cities of New Philadelphia and Cambridge, Ohio in May, 1985. The cities were similar economically and demographically. In Cambridge, impaired drivers were dealt with more traditionally – their jail sentences rarely exceeded the state minimum of three days and their sentences were usually served in education-oriented weekend camps rather than in the county jail. By contrast, in New Philadelphia, the sole judge imposed a “standard” jail term of 15 days, a $750 fine, and a six-month license restriction on first offenders. Surveys conducted in the two cities indicated that New Philadelphia residents did perceive the certainty and severity of penalties to be greater than in Cambridge. Despite the differences in both actual and expected punishments, no significant differences were found in the levels of impaired driving in the two cities as indicated by random breath tests. A study of court files indicated that the re-conviction rate, too, was similar in both cities and therefore unaffected by the harsher penalties in New Philadelphia. The authors concluded that increasing sentence severity did not serve as a deterrent without a concomitant increase in the certainty of punishment.

To summarize, the deterrent effects of MMS for impaired driving are especially difficult to assess as these legislative initiatives are usually accompanied by educational campaigns. In addition, legal sanctions are often accompanied by treatment for alcohol abuse. Research attempting to isolate the effects of legal sanctions has found that people are more likely to respond to the shame associated with impaired driving than to the threat of punishment per se, although the level of shame is undoubtedly influenced by sanctions and publicity campaigns. Overall, the evidence in this area holds out more hope for vigorous law enforcement and the certainty of punishment than for tough sentences. Studies indicate that MMS and sanctions of increasing severity do not reduce recidivism rates or alcohol-related accidents. One author has noted that impaired driving often involves substance abuse which, in turn, cannot be adequately dealt with through punishments alone.