Sin tax packs less punch than DUI court, probation

This holiday season, numerous Anchoragites will play the game. They will drink and drive. High school and college students, the working class and the upper class will all join in the national pastime of driving home from a party or bar wasted, trying not to get caught. When some first time offenders do get arrested — and thus lose the game — they will write it off as a major, unexpected expenditure to add to the already expensive season, right?

Not if Anchorage Police Chief Duane Udland gets his way. In a meeting last week of Mayor Wuerch’s DUI Task Force and the House Transportation Committee, Udland proposed following first and second time offenders more closely with probation and threw his support behind the drunken driving court concept presented by Superior Court Judge Sigurd Murphy. Udland’s proposal lets judges decide how best to handle cases involving drunks, including bringing in mental health and other experts and having weekly court dates to check their progress. These new proposals might crimp some drivers’ tinsel during upcoming holiday seasons.

Will the suggestions make a big enough difference? They might. The biggest problem with keeping people from drinking and driving has been that the punishment doesn’t hurt badly enough. Serve a little time, pay a little fine — on an installment plan if you can’t pay right away — and be done with it.

The new ideas may make a bigger difference than the increased tax of 20 to 25 cents per drink proposed by former Anchorage City Prosecutor Jim Crary, who also spoke at Tuesday’s meeting. It is unlikely that Crary’s suggestion — moderate drinkers won’t mind paying less than a dollar more, but heavy drinkers will balk at the idea of a few extra bucks — really holds water. It seems that the opposite more likely is true. After a few drinks, heavy drinkers will probably not mind paying a few extra bucks to keep a buzz going.

Murphy said Anchorage warehouses drunken drivers then lets them out to re-offend. Chief Udland said police are ‘pretty good at catching them…6, 7, 8 times, but we’re not good at dealing with them after we get them.’ These comments give strength to the DUI court concept. Udland also said that public funding for probation has not kept pace. He threw out Crary’s idea that tax dollars could get more officers. ‘It’s easy to get money for cops,’ Udland said, since the department can hire through federal funding.

Few of the 32 recommendations made by the Mayor’s DUI Task Force would make a major impact on drunken driving. Only No. 18, to establish and fund a DUI court, is strong. Will the city be willing to put up the dough to hire three to four more judges since the present ones are too backlogged to add a drunken driving court to their schedule? Will it be willing to support the hiring of probation officers to follow even misdemeanor cases?

Legislators looked as if they would support the new court, but when the pen hits the ink, will they? Only if they want to solve the problem, instead of simply throwing a few quarters in a bucket.