The Group pt. 1

27 04 2015
Remember the Chinese curse about living in interesting times?  [click on image for more]

Remember the Chinese curse about living in interesting times?
[click on image for more]

As part of the legal consequences of a DUI conviction, I am required to attend 20 hours of classes on substance abuse. We met for the first time this past Saturday and Sunday and will meet again next weekend, same times, same place. There’s a group of about a dozen of us including the instructor. We all sit around a table in a room, boxes of Dunkin Donuts sugar bombs provided. The atmosphere is relaxed, and at first we are all a bit nervous. We’ve all been busted for DUI/DWI. I had no idea what to expect, but knew what the stereotypical drunk driver is supposed to be.

None of these people fit.

They were for the most part friendly, nice, intelligent folks with families and jobs, just trying to get along. The stories they shared about how they wound up here surprised me. Sure, there were a couple of classic cases, out at the bar all night drinking and got nailed by the cops on the way home. But there were others that just didn’t seem to belong. Like the woman who had only had a single beer at a restaurant and was stopped on her way home. She passed the field sobriety tests with ease. But the cop wasn’t satisfied and made her do a breathalyzer. She blew just over the legal limit, so he busted her.

Then there was the woman who wasn’t even driving at all. She’d been in the passenger’s seat while her husband negotiated slippery winter conditions. They wound up in a snow bank. She stayed with the car while he went to a neighbor’s house for help. The cop came by and stopped. She told him she hadn’t been behind the wheel, but he didn’t believe her. She had been drinking, and he busted her, because she couldn’t prove she hadn’t been driving.

NH has among the harshest drunk driving laws in the country. You can do absolutely nothing wrong, endanger no one, and still be arrested and plunged into the nightmare. What seems perfectly ordinary, a single beer at a restaurant and then driving home, is illegal. How can they do this? Because restaurants serve alcohol in portions that actually amount to 2 or 3 standard drinks as defined by law. Because even if you are manifesting no external signs of drunkenness, under strict laboratory conditions there is measurable impairment to your judgement after one of these servings.

One fellow was driving home after having a couple of beers and hit a patch of black ice and lost control. How many of us have known someone, or have ourselves hit a patch of black ice stone cold sober and lost control of a car? Would he have been able to avoid the accident if he hadn’t had the beers? Or would it have happened anyway? No way to know. But he does not get the benefit of the doubt. He suffers the consequences, the fines, the loss of license, the increase in insurance rates, the red flag on his license and driving record.

So here we all are taking this damn class. Paying for mistakes that some of us didn’t even realize were mistakes. In at least one case, paying for something we didn’t even do. Sure, I am assuming they were telling the truth. Could be they skewed the story a bit to put themselves in a better light. Maybe even outright lying about some of the details. That’s only human. But mandatory sentencing doesn’t make allowances for humanity. And after two sessions of classes with these people I am convinced they are pretty much in the same boat I am. Ordinary people who are no danger to themselves or society and who do not deserve what has happened to them.

We live in a state that is starved for tax revenue. We are in a budget crisis, spending cut to the bone. New Hampshire desperately needs money, but refuses to tax those who could most afford it. Instead, they rely on squeezing it out of those least able to afford it. And those least able to fight back.

What a sweet deal. The state sells booze and makes a pile on that. Then, they pass strict DWI laws with stiff penalties. They get a cut when restaurants sell alcohol to patrons. Then they pounce when those patrons drive home, and rake in a pile more for fines and fees. The propaganda has the public believing that the stiff DWI laws are for their protection, and the image is of the dangerous repeat offender weaving all over the road and killing innocent bystanders. I don’t deny that public menace is out there, and needs to be taken off the road. But I don’t see him when I look around at the faces of the people in the class with me. I see people who have, for the most part, been screwed.

The class itself is good. The instructor is excellent, a woman with a sense of humor but also a sense of the seriousness of the subject. The information she is passing on is derived from a canned program called “Prime for Life” which she has mercifully edited somewhat to cut to the chase. We are taught about how alcohol (and other drugs) affect the body and what sorts of drinking habits can lead to impairment and eventually to alcoholism. Hereditary factors can contribute, and what seem like harmless behaviors can have serious long-term consequences. Most of it wasn’t a big surprise to me, and is backed up by good science. We aren’t talking DARE propaganda here. Total abstinence isn’t being preached except to those who have already tipped over into alcoholism. For the rest of us, two standard drinks a day is actually quite healthy.

A lot of us agreed that this program ought to be a part of driver’s education, or required upon renewing one’s license at age 21.  Perhaps even required for all high school seniors, since so much alcohol mayhem and tragedy occurs among young people, thank in huge part to the influence of advertising, movies and other media glorifying drinking, a lot of it deliberately targeting youth.

Drinking in bar

And it isn’t just the ads that seduce us into the trap. [click on image for more]

Speaking of advertising, the class included a very enlightening video on alcohol ads.  I don’t read a lot of magazines, and I haven’t watched regular television in years. I don’t see ads. So when we saw how advertisements prey on consumers, especially young consumers, I was gobsmacked. I had no idea. The advertisers are nothing short of criminally predatory. Again I was outraged by the way people are manipulated into making bad choices and then slapped down for it. Drinking is glamorized; our deepest anxieties and insecurities are evoked, with alcohol as the answer.

We live in a society where we rely heavily on cars. We must drive everywhere, especially in New Hampshire, because we are so rural and we have no public transportation. Now add that fact to the DWI laws and the media’s praise of drinking. Is it any surprise that the courts are packed with offenders?

We are only human. We cannot be expected to make perfect choices all the time. It doesn’t help to be surrounded with societal pressures that push us in the wrong direction. Neither is it particularly helpful, when we have screwed up, to be treated as if we are bad people with failed moral character because of it. Smacked down and punished. Criminalized.

At the end of Sunday’s class one of the group shared his DWI story. It was the anniversary of his daughter’s death. She had been just a child when she died. Her loss affected him deeply. He had gone out and he had been drinking. What a surprise. Should he have been driving in that condition? Of course not. But dear god, where is the compassion? Does the man deserve to be busted on the anniversary of his little girl’s death? Isn’t he already suffering enough?

This isn’t justice. This is a cruel game of Gotcha.

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5 responses

27 04 2015
Mary Jolles

I have always found it an irony that the State of NH sold liquor.

Your piece raises interesting issues about discipline and justice. As a school administrator, I was keenly aware of two things: that discipline should teach the individual being disciplined to change their behavior, but should also serve as a deterrent to others. It should teach the group (not necessarily being disciplined at the time) that the unacceptable behavior will not be tolerated. Sometimes it is difficult or downright impossible to meet both goals. The first goal, with respect to teaching the individual, means that justice should be tailored to the individual and the circumstances. The second goal requires a fair amount of consistency in the consequences being applied, across the population expected to follow the rule. So a second grade teacher tells the class, “If you disrupt class with your talking, your name goes on the board. Repeat offence, a check mark goes next to your name. Two check marks, you lose recess.” Sounds fair. Clear and straightforward, not hard to understand. Nice and consistent. A good deterrent for ordinary kids. But what about the little fellow in the front of the class who is hyper and can’t stop talking to his neighbor? This little fellow needs recess desperately! To take it away from him would be cruel and unusual. Realizing this, the teacher adjusts her discipline for the exceptional child and comes up with a different consequence. Immediately the other students pounce on the inconsistency and complain. “How come he gets to go out…You said…” Yes, I know I said, explains the teacher, but…

Laws usually try to straddle these two goals as well, using a range of penalties. The laws I have the most problem with are the “zero tolerance” or “one strike you’re out” laws. Laws like this are ridiculous. They don’t work because they neither teach, nor are they intrinsically fair. Usually the consequences are way over the top, an outcome of societal frustration and fear. In a school setting, zero tolerance results in a Kindergartner being expelled for bringing a water pistol to school. Young, inexperienced teachers are famous for saying, in a moment of exasperation when the class is getting out of control, “The next person who talks is getting sent to the office!” Immediately the class falls silent, except for Mary Primrose, the nice girl who has never been in trouble before in her life but who was laughing at something her neighbor said at the moment the teacher spoke those fatal words. Out of consistency, the teacher must grimly follow through and send Mary Primrose to the office, but both she and the class know how stupid the whole thing is.

When designing good rules of discipline or good laws, you have to ask, “Will the punishment bring about a change in the individual lawbreaker’s behavior?” But you also have to ask, “Will this law be a deterrent to others who might consider breaking this law?” There are very few rules or laws for which one can answer “Yes” to both questions. Some laws answer one satisfactorily but not the other. Capital punishment does not teach the individual lawbreaker anything, but it has been shown to be an effective deterrent among the citizenry in general. DWI laws were enacted as a deterrent, to reduce the number of alcohol-related fatalities on the road. And I mus say that overall the law has done just that.

There are so many individuals for whom drinking is a medical issue. For them, drinking and driving is not a “misbehavior” in that they were thinking properly when they made the choice to drive after having had a few drinks. Identifying these individuals and getting them the medical help they need is essential. But punishing them? Some might argue that the punishment is a wake up call and that it will prompt the alcoholic to seek treatment. But many alcoholics remain repeat offenders until the driver causes an accident that takes someone’s life or they serve jail time. Even if they did not cause any injury to anyone, a person who is picked up for DWI needs to understand that his or her behavior is dangerous. The fact is, they could have caused injury or a fatality.

My son Karl was jailed for 30 days in Colorado after a second DWI offense. He grumbled that he was already in his own driveway when the cop stopped him. He also complained that he hadn’t hurt anyone. What he didn’t mention was that he had attracted the cop’s attention because he had pulled in erratically and was having a great deal of difficulty parking his car in the parking spot provided outside his apartment–banging into the curb, pulling out, parking crookedly–enough to arouse the suspicion of the law enforcement officer watching.

Karl is an alcoholic. He was in denial at the time. He didn’t understand that, even though he had not hurt anyone on that occasion, it was only a matter of time before he either killed himself or someone else. He had already been stopped and fined once before. It had not provided a deterrent. The penalty was increased for the second offense: jail time. Karl is a nice man, hardworking, pays his bills. He hadn’t hurt anyone. He is of good moral character, generous and loving and, for the most part, law-abiding. Did he deserve to go to jail? He made a bad choice which he wished later he hadn’t made. He broke a law for which the penalty was a jail term, and he understood at the time that what he was doing was illegal, so I guess the answer is, “Yes.” (We can’t send only those of bad character to jail and excuse good people who are guilty of the same infraction. I remember the outrage of a mother who was horrified that I was suspending her daughter for serious bullying behavior towards another girl. The mother kept maintaining that her daughter was a “good girl.” I agreed, but pointed out the fact that her daughter had admitted to the rather egregious bullying behavior. Just because she was normally “good” did not mean she should be excused from the consequences that would be imposed on any other student.)

Karl’s prison sentence was the wake up call that caused him to take his problem seriously. He did not want to be in jail ever again. It was a thoroughly unpleasant experience. The only way I was allowed to “visit” him was through a videocam. The state provided an incentive to earn an early release from jail–Karl took the incentive and was released after only 18 days. Since then, he has sought help for his alcoholism and has not driven a vehicle after drinking. I am deeply thankful that a cop stopped him before he caused harm either to himself or someone else.

I have personally known two individuals who were killed by drunk drivers. One victim was a child, a student at the school where I taught. While walking on the side of the road (the wrong side, unfortunately, facing away from traffic) he was struck from behind by a man who was literally blind drunk. Interestingly, the court also charged the bar that sold the driver an excessive number of drinks (I think it was five drinks, though the bar indignantly maintained he must have bought drinks earlier at another bar), stating that they were partly to blame for the child’s death–that they should have known that the man had already had too much to drink. I thought this was an important feature to the case. Advertising, the social acceptance–even social demand–of drinking, and our reluctance to talk about alcoholism as a medical problem–all these contribute to the problem, not just the poor judgement of the individual.

But DWI laws are designed to address individual behavior and choices. Other laws, such as prohibiting the sale of alcohol to minors and regulations placed on advertising, will have to address the concerns we have about society and the media. We’ve done a good job with respect to removing tobacco ads from television, even discouraging Hollywood from displaying smoking in movies. Perhaps we can do the same with alcohol. I believe alcohol ads have already been taken off regular TV shows. I’m not sure about this, since I don’t watch CBS or NBC or the other commercial channels. But this is the way to go, I believe.

27 04 2015
Mary Jolles

I was wrong about the TV ads. They’re still on there. So this is where we need to start. It was done with cigarettes. We can do it for alcohol.

28 04 2015
justinegraykin

This is a very emotionally charged issue. We each have our perspective, and I believe they are each legitimate.

28 04 2015
Mary Jolles

You are absolutely right, it is an emotionally charged issue that can be seen from multiple perspectives. Each perspective starts from a solid foundation, and asks a question: How is this going to make things better? If we focus on that, each perspective suggests solutions and alternatives that answer that question.

28 04 2015
Mary Jolles

I should have added to the question, “How is this going to make things better?” an additional question, “And for whom?” Who is actually being helped is a critical question. In the best of circumstances, it is both lawbreaker and society who gain from the enforcement of a law. In the worst of circumstances, it is neither.

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