Tough drunken-driving laws require tough prosecutors

This editorial was written by The Munster Times.

Our legal system and society must get tougher on drunken driving.

We’ve repeatedly made that point as drunken-driving-related vehicle crashes continue to kill people on Northwest Indiana roadways at a higher percentage than the rest of the state and nation.

All too often, drunken driving leads to the death of innocent people who played no role in an offending driver making the decision to become intoxicated and then get behind the wheel.

In every case of intoxicated driving, innocent human lives are put at unnecessary risk.

So the Indiana Senate deserves the gratitude of the state for a 48-0 vote (recently), cracking down on repeat drunken drivers.

That Senate vote should serve as an important reminder to county prosecutors everywhere to apply the laws that are on the books rather than minimizing the gravity of the charges with soft plea deals for offenders.

The state Senate’s resounding vote sends a bill to the Indiana House that would extend the "look-back" period for which a second operating while intoxicated conviction qualifies as a felony.

Under current state law, a second OWI offense within five years of a first conviction constitutes a Level 6 felony, punishable by up to 2 1/2 years in prison and a $10,000 fine. Most first-time drunken driving cases are misdemeanors.

Under current Indiana law, if a second OWI within five years causes serious bodily injury, it becomes a Level 5 felony, punishable by up to six years in prison and a $10,000 fine.

Senate Bill 163 would extend the look-back period for previous OWI offenses to seven years for those felony repeat OWI charges.

The legislation goes even further by making any subsequent OWI beyond a second offense a Level 6 felony if the perpetrators have two prior, unrelated drunken driving convictions within 15 years.

It’s clear tougher laws are needed for drunken driving.

The Senate’s move to expand the ability of prosecutors to charge repeat offenders with felonies is only as good as the initial enforcement, however.

Too often, first-time drunken driving offenders were allowed to take plea deals to lesser reckless driving misdemeanors.

That means future felony charges for repeat offenses were taken off the table.

For the existing laws, or future penalties proposed by the Senate bill, to be effective, prosecutors must be appropriately tough on drunken drivers the first time around as well.

The Indiana House should pass the Senate bill on to the governor, who should sign it into law and send a message that the Hoosier state doesn’t take drunken driving lightly.

But prosecutors must do their part, or none of it matters.