The billboards say: You drink. You drive. You go to jail. In Dallas County, says the Dallas Morning News, you may spend little or no time behind bars – even if you kill someone. More than 40 percent of those arrested for intoxication manslaughter over the last 10 years never saw a prison cell. Instead, they got probation. Even those convicted received a more lenient sentence than the state average, an examination of court records shows. That outrages some relatives of victims. For offenders, probation offers substance abuse treatment – and redemption.
Dallas County has the third-highest rate of drunken driving fatalities in the nation, says the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. In 2008, 83 died as a result of actions by drivers under the influence – the third straight annual increase. For many of those drivers who are prosecuted and get probation, the only time they will spend behind bars is between 120 and 180 days in county jail. Backers of tougher sentencing often are frustrated by the emphasis on treatment. Rehabilitation is laudable, they say, but offenders also should lose their liberty, which might deter other drunken drivers. Prosecutors, defense attorneys, and judges say probation makes sense because intoxication manslaughter cases are incredibly difficult to prosecute. Probationers are forced to get treatment they probably wouldn’t receive in prison, and rehabilitation is less costly than punishment.