Laura’s Law: Continuing the discussion
This posting is a follow up to discussion from NC SPIN show #644, written by NC SPIN panelist and political analyst Jeanne Miliken Bonds.
This past Sunday, NC Spin aired and we discussed Laura’s Law, HB 49, named for a young woman who was killed last July when a drunk driver slammed into the car carrying the 17-year-old. The driver had three DWI convictions already.
The accident has led to discussions about North Carolina’s continuous alcohol monitoring system, or “ankle bracelet,” law. Under current law, a court cannot order an offender to wear an ankle bracelet for more than 60 days. Proposed legislation would change that limit as well as other penalties for repeat offenders.
An absolute tragedy and unfortunately one that occurs far too often. This bill also adds a level of punishment, “aggravated level one punishment, ” which would be imposed on offenders when three or more “aggravating factors” are present:
- A conviction for impaired driving within the last 7 years or following the current offense
- Driving with a license revoked for another impaired driving offense
- Serious injury to another person caused by the impaired driving in the current instance
- Driving with a passenger under the age of 16
Unfortunately, NC Spin is a 30-minute program (I wish it was an hour!) with four panelists so there just is not time to thoroughly discuss a topic that warrants a more in-depth discussion.
When I worked at the Courts, we researched the North Carolina Alcohol/Drug Council statistics showing a wide variation in DWI conviction rates among North Carolina’s judicial districts. Then, and now, these incidents cause some to wonder whether the courts are functioning properly. In fact, almost always, the question is “Are Judges doing their job?”
Usually, the number of defendants tried in District Coiurt who are found not guilty is low. And, it is true that there is variance in DWI conviction rates across the State. There are differences in attitudes of the members of the public who form the juries in the various districts of the State. Historically, juries in eastern North Carolina acquit a larger percentage of DWI defendants than juries elsewhere in the state.
And, those who try these cases will provide anecdotal evidence that jurors sometimes take a more lenient view when they actually sit on a jury and must make a decision that will affect the freedom or livelihood of an individual defendant.
Because of increasing caseloads, an increasing population, and not enough judges per capita, prosecutors are forced to give great weight to the track record of juries in their districts when deciding which DWI cases to prosecute and which defendants they should allow to plead guilty to lesser offenses.
Laura’s Law will be a deterrent if the Courts are given enough resources to try more cases. Passing new laws, without the resources will not achieve the desired results. Remember, the same judges are trying murder, rape, armed robbery cases.
When penalties are increased, more defendants plead not guilty and exercise their right to a jury trial. More of those convicted appeal and exhaust all of the time and court resources possible. Juries want more proof at trial. Judges focuses on many different cases, all of which are critical to a segment of society so to assume Judges are not doing their job is wrong.
Only the General Assembly can provide resources to the Courts. Some assume fines and fees go to the Courts, but they do not, those monies go to the General Fund in most cases, and specified county funds in other cases.
Since 1995, NC has had Drug Treatment Courts with very successful results, both pre-plea and post-sentence, but these special Courts are not funded statewide but have been increasing in number since 1995. North Carolina Drug Treatment Courts are a relatively new part of the U.S. judicial system, and NC was one of the first States to have these Courts. These Courts have been shown to reduce the rate of recidivism and the overall cost to taxpayers in comparison to conventional courts. Unlike many States, North Carolina Courts can require individuals to participate in drug court whether they want to or not and completion of a drug court program will not typically result in reduced or dismissed charges.
Again, resources are needed but the benefits to NC are a lower risk of recidivism as more participants remain drug free. To hear the stories of those who have successfully completed these Courts, is emotional and rewarding as they return to society as productive citizens.
The answer. Resources.
Jeanne Milliken Bonds is a PR Consultant, Political Analyst, NC Spin Commentator
Cross-Post: NC Spin