Drive drunk, and you play Russian roulette every time you turn the ignition key. Maybe you’ll make it home and sleep it off. Maybe you’ll get pulled over and spend the night in jail. Maybe you’ll kill two young mothers, kneeling on the highway shoulder. If driving under the influence is a gamble, so are its legal consequences, says the Sacramento Bee. Sentences in fatal DUI crashes can vary from a few months of community service to life behind bars. The killer of the two mothers got two years in prison; someone who killed an elderly man got a year in prison drug rehab. Punishment may hinge on the social status of the killer or the victim. The defendant’s remorse can play a role in shortening prison time, while the survivors’ demand for retribution can lengthen it. Other variables are the driver’s recklessness, prior record, and awareness that drunken driving can kill. “As far as I can tell, it’s not based on any coherent sentencing philosophy,” said Kara Dansky of the Stanford Criminal Justice Center. “It depends a lot on who you are and who the victim is.”
In one week in Sacramento this spring, the deaths of five innocent people showed the human cost of driving under the influence. Those cases prompted the Bee to examine the aftermath of earlier cases, sifting through court records and interviewing prosecutors, defenders, sentencing experts, and those who lost a mother, a child, and a husband of 50 years.