Salt Lake City DUI Lawyer Darren Levitt to Utah Legislature: Harsher Penalties Not a Solution for Reducing DUIs

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According to a report issued by the Utah Commission on Criminal and Juvenile Justice to the Utah Legislature, deaths attributed to driving under the influence of alcohol and drugs increased dramatically over the past year, from 25 to 39. Salt Lake City DUI defense attorney Darren Levitt says that while it may be tempting for lawmakers to toughen DUI penalties, it would be more effective to focus on solutions that decrease recidivism, like DUI courts.

"Though the rise of DUI deaths is disturbing, the Legislature should refrain from a hard-line approach that may please some constituents, but is unlikely to keep drunk drivers off the street," said Darren Levitt, Salt Lake City DUI defense lawyer.

When the Utah Legislature meets this this month, they'll have some tragic news to ponder. According to an annual report submitted in October by the Utah Commission on Criminal and Juvenile Justice to the Legislature, deaths from Driving Under the Influence of alcohol or drugs increased significantly in the last year, from 25 to 39, a 56 percent increase. Despite this figure, lawmakers should resist any calls to toughen DUI penalties, which would not properly address the situation, said Salt Lake City DUI defense lawyer Darren Levitt.

"Popular outrage may lead to a hang 'em high approach for those accused of driving under the influence, but studies have shown that's simply not an effective approach," Levitt said.

The report is issued annually by the department to inform legislators and guide policy making. The Utah Senate and House of Representatives meets annually for 45 days, beginning the fourth Monday of January.

In this year's report, the substantial increase in deaths was accompanied by a drop in arrests, from 13,816 to 13,031, a 6 percent drop. Nearly 84 percent was arrests for "per se" DUI, meaning the blood-alcohol content was about .08 percent, with the average BAC being .14 percent.
In the face of this news, legislators may be tempted to prove to their voters they are "doing something" about the increase of deaths by cranking up jail time or finding other punitive measures, but they should resist, said Levitt. According to a 2005 study by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration and the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, "A Guide to Sentencing DWI Offenders," results from jail as a deterrent are "mixed."

"In general, the available evidence suggests that as a specific deterrent, jail terms are extremely costly and no more effective in reducing DWI recidivism among either first-time or repeat offenders than are other sanctions," the study states. Even when tougher prison sentences are imposed and then highly publicized, they are only successful as a deterrent for about three years before dissipating, the study says.

"Utah already has some of the toughest DUI penalties in the United States, with a minimum 48 hours in jail for even the first DUI conviction," Levitt said. "Driving under the influence is dangerous and the increased number of deaths is a tragedy, but increasing penalties is not a sustainable answer and is unlikely to save lives."

Utah Highway Patrol Col. Daniel Fuhr told the Deseret News that his department will already be switching the department's focus from speeding to seat belt usage to DUI enforcement, which may significantly cut down on deaths ("DUI deaths up on Utah roadways in 2011," Oct. 18, 2012).

The Legislature would also be well-advised to increase programs that reduce recidivism, Levitt said. According to the Commission's report, about 32 percent of those arrested for DUI have at least one DUI conviction. Options to reduce recidivism include DUI courts. DUI courts may reduce recidivism by as much as 50 percent, according to the NHTSA/NIAAA study. While DUI courts are available in some Utah cities, like Ogden, they are not available statewide.

DUI courts are specialized courts where the prosecutor, court officers and the accused's Salt Lake City DUI defense lawyer work in collaboration to develop a rigorous treatment program that the accused must follow. Typically, at the end of the program, the charges against the defendant are dismissed, allowing the accused to maintain a clean criminal record.

"Driving under the influence is a dangerous habit, as the Commission's report to the Legislature shows," Levitt said. "Though the rise of DUI deaths is disturbing, the Legislature should refrain from a hard-line approach that may please some constituents, but is unlikely to keep drunk drivers off the street. Instead, they should focus on assisting local governments in developing DUI courts that will keep those charged with DUI from becoming repeat offenders. That's a policy change that will actually save lives."

Darren Levitt is a Salt Lake City criminal defense lawyer with experience in defending the rights of clients accused of driving under the influence. Levitt's firm, Levitt Legal, PLLC, represents those charged with DUI and other criminal offenses, including drug charges, marijuana charges, domestic violence or violent crimes, in Salt Lake County, Box Elder County, Cache County, Weber County and the surrounding area.

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