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Editorial Archives — The Altamont Enterprise, December 15, 2011

Make the punishment fit the crime

It’s hard to imagine any suffering worse than a life maimed by a drunk driver. Likewise, the pain felt by those who lived and depended on someone whose life was randomly and needlessly cut short by a drunk driver.

The stories told by those who speak at victims’ impact panels are heartfelt and moving. In covering such panels — typically required for those who have been convicted of driving while intoxicated — we have been moved to tears. We admire the survivors who have the guts to tell their stories and try to make a difference.

So we understand the anger and frustration that acting Albany County Sheriff Craig Apple and Stop-DWI Administrator Kerry Thompson must have felt when they dispatched a press release last week about a victims’ impact panel held on Nov. 29 in Guilderland Town Hall. Five of the 140 people required to attend the panel were tested for alcohol after volunteers noticed the smell of alcohol.

Their blood alcohol content ranged from .01 to .18 ; the legal limit for driving is .08. These five hadn’t driven themselves to the session, but, rather, had been dropped off by family and friends.

Over the years, we’ve reported on people who have driven to the required sessions at Guilderland Town Hall while drunk.

Why? Why would anyone convicted of drunk driving show up drunk at a session that is meant to enlighten?

We suppose it is because they are alcoholics.

Over a half-century ago, in 1958, the American Medical Association declared alcoholism a disease. Unfortunately, it’s a widespread disease. In 2006, according to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration’s national survey, close to 24 million Americans over the age of 12 needed treatment for an illicit drug or alcohol abuse problem.

According to the Behavioral Risk Factor Surveillance System survey, more than half of adult Americans drank alcohol in the past 30 days; about 5 percent drank heavily while 15 percent binge drank.

That’s a staggering number, with staggering results. The Centers for Disease Control attributes 79,000 deaths annually to excessive alcohol use, making it the third leading preventable cause of death. In addition, says the CDC, excessive alcohol use is responsible for 2.3 million years of potential life lost annually; that’s an average of about 30 years of potential life lost for each death.

Every year, alcohol abuse causes millions of emergency-room visits and millions of hospitalizations. Health problems aren’t just the liver, cardiovascular, psychiatric, and neurological problems caused by the effect of alcohol on the abuser. The alcoholic is also the cause of unintentional injuries, says the CDC, which include drunk-driving crashes, falls, drownings, burns and firearm injuries.

Excessive alcohol use also leads to violence; the CDC cites a report prepared for the United States Department of Justice that showed alcohol use is associated with two out of three incidents of intimate partner violence, and is a leading factor in child maltreatment and neglect cases.

In the decades since alcoholism was labeled a disease, there has been a disconnect between the way doctors view alcoholism and the way courts treat those who have the disease. The CDC writes that alcoholism is a chronic disease with symptoms that include continued use despite repeated physical, psychological, or interpersonal problems; the alcoholic is unable to limit drinking.

While all states have adopted .08 as the legal limit for operating a motor vehicle for drivers 21 or older, punishments vary. The court system in California, for example, is shifting to allow treatment in a state-licensed rehabilitation program as an accepted alternative to straight jail time. Florida, too, allows imprisonment to be spent in a rehabilitation center. This can break the cycle of repeat offenses.

Educational programs and victims’ impact panels may be effective for first-time offenders who aren’t alcoholics. It may give them the jolt they need to never repeat the crime.

But for an alcoholic, it is not that simple.

One third of the fatalities in our state involve impaired or intoxicated drivers and pedestrians, according to the New York State Department of Motor Vehicles. The risk of crashes increases with blood alcohol content. A driver with a BAC of .08 is four times more likely to cause a crash then a driver who has not been drinking, says the DMV, while a driver with a BAC of .16 is 25 times more likely to do so.

If we want to stop the slaughter on our streets, we, as New Yorkers, have to make the punishment fit the crime. Rehab is not a picnic for an alcoholic; in many ways, it can be tougher than pointlessly sitting in a jail cell. But it would give the alcoholic a chance to recover, and it would give society a chance to reduce the maiming and slaughter.

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