I just finished a series of press conferences triggered by the Sheila Blair situation. She is, as the Benton Courier described her, “a Benton woman who has been convicted 10 times for driving while intoxicated” who “was released from prison after serving less than a 10th of her sentence because of prison crowding.”
Think of that!
I actually did the press conference four different times, which was a little wearying (Channel 4 and 16, and the print media, were on time, but Channel 7 and 11 were each a little late, and KARN wanted to do something separate by phone), but you know what Gore Vidal said about, among other things, appearing on television.
Saline County Prosecutor Ken Casady explained the circumstances of the conviction (the prosecutor, jury and judge all agreed to give her the maximum sentence, which was then in effect overruled by the early release policy); Teresa Belew of Mothers Against Drunk Driving discussed the dangers to others of an early release policy for DWI offenders; and I gave a brief presentation on a legislative fix that would block (multiple) DWI felony offenders from early release. State Sen. Shane Broadway called in by speakerphone with some supportive remarks, and although I can’t speak for him, from his tone I am most optimistic that he will help get the bill through the Senate next session.
If you want to know what I’m proposing, there’s an informal transcript of my remarks at the jump (although I can’t claim to have said exactly the same thing four times running). I’ll be interested to see what parts of this make it to the evening news.
I have spoken to several sentencing and parole experts in state government about the situation that has led to a 10-time DWI offender serving less than 10% of her sentence. They all say: yes, it’s a problem. But the current law on DWI is not simply a problem. The current law on DWI is pathetic and ridiculous.
The root of the problem is that felony DWI—four-time DWI—is classified as a “nonviolent” offense. In fact, no matter how many times a felon commits DWI, it’s still classified as a “nonviolent” offense.
Nonviolent offenders are eligible for early parole. In this case, the offender shouldn’t be: Someone with 10 DWIs should be serving some serious time. In fact, I believe that is true for any felony DWI offender.
Early parole should only be offered to non-dangerous offenders. Someone with 10 DWIs is not a non-dangerous offender. Someone with 10 DWIs is about as non-dangerous as a cocked and loaded gun. That kind of repeat offender history suggests it’s just a matter of time until the gun goes off. And to state the obvious, it’s only a matter of time until the repeat DWI felon injures other drivers.
In the next legislative session, I will write and sponsor a law that will prevent the Department of Corrections from classifying felony DWI as a nonviolent offense. Earlier this morning, I spoke to our chief criminal justice legislative drafter in the General Assembly and he is already sketching out a law that will create a minor, technical, but very important change that will lead to dangerous people serving longer sentences.
The decision to let multiple DWI offenders back on the road early is a mistake in management that can be overruled by the legislature, and that is what I plan to do. This will prevent early parole under the Emergency Powers Act, and it will keep our streets safe from the next Sheila Blair.
I have had a good conversation with Sen. Shane Broadway about this. I am optimistic that I will have his cooperation, and the cooperation of the entire Arkansas General Assembly, for a simple fix that will keep a few more people — who have a history of being unable to drive safely — out of their cars and off the streets. This change will keep a few repeat offenders behind bars longer and make the roadways much safer for the rest of us.