First-time drunk drivers could get a chance at rehabilitation rather than jail time under a bill approved by the Senate Criminal Justice Committee last week. 

Current state law puts an emphasis on punishment for all drunk drivers, often locking up people with no criminal record who caused no damage with their crime. That needs to change, said San Antonio Senator José Menéndez, a sponsor of the bill. 

"We need to address the issue of alcohol and substance abuse addiction," said Menéndez. "It can't be just the punitive side, it has to be preventive." 

The bill, HB 3582 by Rep. Andrew Murr, would allow prosecutors to seek deferred adjudication as a penalty under some circumstances. 

The option would only be available in cases where the first-time offender was driving with a blood alcohol content of less than .15, just under twice the legal limit and where no property damage or personal injury occurred. 

Until the bill came out of the House, the offender would be required to install an ignition interlock device on their car, but some members in the Senate expressed concern over this provision. Installation of the device can cost as much as $150, and along with a $60 to $90 monthly monitoring fee, it can be difficult for many to afford. The version presented by Menéndez would permit judicial oversight, allowing a judge to consult with an alcohol and substance abuse evaluation prior to sentencing to determine if the person presents an ongoing threat to public safety. If not, he or she could waive the requirement. 

The bill also includes financial aid provisions for indigent offenders who are required to install an interlock device. A person could apply to have the record of the offense partially sealed two years after successful completion of probation. It would still count on their record; should they be convicted of DWI again, it would be classified as a second offense and entail the commensurate punishment. 

Committee chair and Houston Sen. John Whitmire said he has long been frustrated with how the state deals with drunk driving offenders. 

Today, he said, there are 5,000 people incarcerated in Texas for multiple DWIs, and they often aren't getting the help they need in jail. 

If anyone thinks we're being soft on DWIs, there's 5,000 lives that are ruined, away from their family, [and] we're spending millions of dollars," he said. "They go in and out of [Texas Department of Criminal Justice] for five years and get no treatment from the state of Texas prison system. And most, unfortunately, will reoffend." 

Jennifer Tharp, the criminal district attorney for Comal County, testified in support of the bill, saying that many first-time offenders don’t deserve harsh punishments. 

"I've had cases come across my desk, it's a young offender, it's a senior citizen with a pristine criminal record … it's a veteran with PTSD that has gone to drinking to try and cope with it and has found themselves with that first-time DWI offense," she said. "Those individuals, for first-time DWI offenses, with no property damage, no personal injury, we need to look at giving them a second chance, and that’s what deferred [adjudication] does." 

She highlighted the provisions regarding the substance abuse evaluation component, not just to determine if an interlock device is needed, but also what, if any, substance abuse treatment the person needs. 

Tharp brought a letter signed by 50 more elected prosecutors in support of the bill. 

Lawmakers need to take a hard look at the way the state handles DWI offenders, said Whitmire. 

"We could spend the whole session trying to make a better, workable, enforceable, tough and smart policy on DWIs," he said. "This is not the final chapter in this war against DWIs, but it's going to have to be a combination of punishment, enforcement and treatment and early intervention." 

The bill was approved by the committee and will now head to the full Senate for consideration. 

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