Convicted Drunken Driver Says Leniency By Judge Did Not Discourage Habit 'If They Don't Do Anything To You You're Going To Keep On Doing It.'

October 14, 1990|By Deidre Nerreau McCabe

When Terry S. Clark was sentenced for drunken driving in March 1987, he got a lucky break that most first-time offenders enjoy in Howard County -- a judge gave him probation before judgment.

With a PBJ sentence, Clark did not have to go to jail, lose his driver's license or even have a DWI conviction recorded on his driver's record.

But Clark, 36, doesn't consider the judge's leniency lucky for him.

Three years and one DWI conviction later, he wishes the judge had been tougher on him the first time.

"It was way too lenient," said Clark, who is now recovering from an alcohol problem.

Reflecting on his experiences, Clark, of Waterloo, said he believes his sentence was so easy the first time around, it did little to discourage him from continuing to drink and drive.

It wasn't until he was caught a second time in Howard County and forced to spend a weekend in jail that he realized how serious his situation was, he said.

"If they don't do anything to you, you're going to keep on doing it," said Clark, who estimates he drove drunk about three times a week for four or five years. "It's a waste of time, and it's a waste of taxpayers' money to bring people in (to court) and then let them off."

Even after the second arrest, which occurred while Clark was still on probation for the first, he does not feel like he "got the book thrown at him."

"Maybe a page," he said, adding that the judge was still pretty easy.

His total sentence was five weekends, four of which were suspended, and two years' probation. He was also told to attend two alcohol recovery programs.

Being forced to go to jail, even for two days, is what really hit home and made him face his problem, he said.

He now realizes he was clearly intoxicated on many nights while driving home from local bars along U.S. 1 in Howard County. On Dec. 22, 1989, the night he was arrested the second time, he drank almost a fifth of vodka in an about an hour, he said.

"I'm just very fortunate I didn't hurt myself or anyone else," he said.

Clark now believes that all first offenders, regardless of the circumstances, should spend at least a couple of days in jail to get the picture -- early on -- of things to come if they keep it up.

"If you're going to get the benefit of probation before judgment and keep a clean record, there ought to be a trade-off," he said. "If you get a PBJ, you should at least get a weekend."

Randy C. Barth, 23, of Ellicott City, is also on his second DWI offense.

But unlike Clark, Barth does not so much fault the leniency of the court system as much as he faults its sluggishness for his subsequent DWI arrest.

After he was caught the first time in February 1989, it took almost a year and a half for his case to come up for trial in District Court, he said. Although he altered his behavior for a while after he was arrested, he had no real incentive to change, he said. He did not even think he had a drinking problem.

One month before his first case finally came to trial in July 1990, he was arrested again on DWI charges. He now has a trial for that case scheduled in November.

In the meantime, he received a probation before judgment sentence for the first case and was required to seek treatment and counseling and attend a Victim Impact Panel as part of his probation.

He claims the treatment process is "really helping me now," and he has not had a drink since he started the programs.

If there had been similar intervention earlier, he said, he never would have ended up with the second DWI offense.

The delay in the court process does not excuse his behavior, he said.

But based on his experience, he thinks swifter treatment of DWI offenders probably could help a lot of first-timers avoid becoming second- and third-offenders.

MADD activists and many prosecutors agree.

Every time drunken drivers go out on the road, they risk killing or injuring themselves or someone else, they said.

Failing to deal effectively with first offenders or taking too long to do so often means those people will fail to change their behavior, they said. This assessment was also the conclusion of a two-year study commissioned by the Maryland Legislature in 1987.

Although all of Howard County's judges and many prosecutors here believe that first offenders deserve a break, those who have been there question whether that's really the best approach.

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