Sending the wrong message

As they considered a pair of bills to toughen the state’s driving under the influence laws, North Dakota lawmakers heard emotional and painful testimony this session from people greatly affected by actions of drunk drivers. They apparently weren’t listening.

The North Dakota House late last week killed Senate Bill 2240, which originally called for a $5,000 fine and mandatory jail time for first-time offenders. But the bill was watered down by amendments, and the version that failed on Friday would have required first-time DUI offenders to pay a mandatory $500 fine, but serve no mandatory jail time. And still the House rejected the bill.

Another bill, House Bill 1302, originally included a mandatory $750 fine and at least four days in jail for a first-time offender. That bill, too, has been weakened and will go to a conference committee before it is voted on.

Despite the state’s DUI?rates climbing at an alarming rate in the past decade, legislators have decided that severely strengthening the laws isn’t a good idea. If HB 1302 is passed, it will likely be a shell of its original version. Perhaps some legislators balked at the idea that the bills included harsh penalties for first-time offenders, but penalties for repeat offenders also escalated in the original bills.

We’re disappointed that lawmakers didn’t take advantage of their opportunity to send a strong message to drivers that the state will not tolerate driving under the influence, whether by first-time offenders or repeat offenders. We have little tolerance for DUI, especially repeat offenders. Stiff fines and mandatory jail time should be a part of the penalties for offenders. Instead, lawmakers have sent the message that the state is a little concerned about DUI rates increasing, but not concerned enough to pass legislation that will actually make a difference.