As I looked for an attorney after getting out of jail, I was surprised to see how many lawyers took the angle of “well, bad things happen to good people.” This was the same question I asked myself as a child. I was fascinated by the idea of unfair things happening to generally good people. Obviously, the idea quickly transforms into an ontological dissertation but that is neither here nor there.
But I suppose the lawyers advertise that bad things happen to good people do so because that is what someone with a fresh DUI wants to hear. That is what I wanted to hear, at least temporarily. After the ordeal they have just gone through, people want to hear that they are still good people, that they are still human.
As I have sat in reflection over the last few days, I’ve come to the realization that it isn’t that actually a proper response – a bad thing, i.e. my DUI, didn’t happen despite me being a good person. Whether or not I am a good person is wholly irrelevant to the DUI and its consequences. The fact of the matter is that I did something bad, and as a result I am enduring the consequence of it. A more apt slogan is, “bad things happen to those people who get caught committing a bad act.”
I also got to thinking about the reasoning behind having a criminal justice system – and why we punish people who have done wrong. It comes down to three reasons:
- Rehabilitation of the offender;
- Deterring others who may want to commit the same act by making an example of the offender; and,
- Retribution for those who have suffered.
I read a blog post yesterday where this nice young lady argued that her DUI punishment seems rather severe, while also claiming that she would never drink and drive again. In that sense, the rehabilitation seems to have worked wonders.
Are the consequences of a DUI dire? Absolutely. I haven’t myself come to grips with the impacts of a DUI conviction on my life. But I too feel rehabilitated. I too promise not to drink, and not to drink and drive. Therefore, rehabilitation seems to have worked.
According to MADD and NHTSA, more than 1/3rd of all drivers arrested or convicted of a DUI are repeat offenders. So NHTSA is correct in stating that, “[w]hile this indicates they are a significant problem, repeat offenders do not constitute the majority of the DWI problem in the U.S. Prevention of DWI in the first place and dealing effectively with first time DWI offenders is a rational approach to the problem.” In other words, we need good deterrents.
How are the punishments and the lobbying by MADD working out? According to NHTSA, the number of drunk driving deaths has been cut in half since 1980, the same year MADD was founded. I get that correlation is not causation. I get that many of those deaths have been prevented because of safer cars, safer roads, and other efforts by people other than the DUI cops or MADD. But if my punishment and punishment of those who are in my position have even the slightest of deterring effect on the DUI rates, then perhaps the system works.
People with a DUI across the internet claim that the punishment was too harsh even though no one was hurt, no property was damaged and no one was killed. Though you have to admit that it is by supreme luck that no one was hurt and nothing was damaged.
But the question remains…when nothing is damaged and no one is hurt, what is the retribution for? Might I suggest that the retribution is for the harm we’ve done collectively to the society. Because of people who do the same thing that I did, i.e. had alcohol and drove, the society the pays the price in terms of deaths, the need for DUI police officers, organizations like MADD, property damage and the pain of those who are left behind when someone dies in a DUI related accident. Successful tax, insurance or administrative systems are based on generalizing people by categorizing them based on their attributes. In this case, the attribute you, me, and other offenders have in common is that we all got drunk and drove. And the punishment is the tax we pay – the punishment for the societal harm we’ve caused. At least, that is the way I choose to look at it. This is my retribution to the society.
It is also worth noting that these issues of the harshness of punishment come up only after someone has gotten a DUI. All of us first time offenders agreed to play by the rules under which we are now charged. As voters we know or should have known the implications of a DUI. But we chose to drink and drive anyway. When we didn’t have a DUI on our record, we screamed, “screw those people with a DUI! The punishment fits the crime!” by not taking any action democratically about the DUI laws. But now that those laws we were complacent in enacting apply to us, they suddenly don’t befit the crime. We make rules for others and exceptions for ourselves.
Other Related Thoughts
I think it’s interesting that most people who blog about a DUI experience feel that they did not belong in the jail for the night they spent there. I felt the same way. I felt that I, too, did not belong in jail. I was somehow different, somehow better than those around me. Perhaps this goes back to the DUI being an effective rehabilitation technique for those of us who had never been to a jail before. We promised ourselves that we would never be back.
But my feeling about not belonging in jail changed when I saw my own mugshot. In that orange and white jumpsuit, I looked no different than anyone else there. I, too, was a criminal that night, just like all the other people in jail with me. And from here on out, all I can hope for is that I won’t be a criminal anymore.
“Beware that, when fighting monsters, you yourself do not become a monster… for when you gaze long into the abyss. The abyss gazes also into you.” – Neitzsche