State and local activists of Mothers Against Drunk Driving say they are encouraged by the state attorney general's plan to review drunken driving laws and how they are being applied for drivers in Howard County and other counties.
"In MADD's opinion, the attorney general's involvement may or may not have any impact (on dispositions), but at least he's willing to take a look at it," said George Layman, MADD's legislative committee chairman. "That's what we've been asking the legislators to do all along."
Attorney General J. Joseph Curran said Friday that he would launch the review following a story Oct. 14 in The Howard County Sun that detailed lenient sentencing patterns for drunken drivers by local judges. Yesterday, Deputy Attorney General Dennis M. Sweeney, who is overseeing the project, said the review will extend to drunken driving laws and sentencing patterns in other counties as well.
The story reported that about 60 percent of the drunken drivers convicted in Howard County were given a sentence of probation before judgment (PBJ), which means a judge sets the conviction aside and the driver receives no points against his driving record for the offense.
Of the more than 2,000 people found guilty of driving drunk in Howard County last year -- including some drivers with as many as three prior convictions -- fewer than 8 percent got any jail time. Statewide, about 15 percent of people convicted of drunken driving in District Court and more than 30 percent of those convicted in Circuit Court were ordered to jail last year.
Wayne Kruhm, a founding member of the Howard County Chapter of MADD, said he thought the attorney general's involvement was a positive signal.
"We think it's wonderful that he's been advised and is aware of it," Kruhm said. "It's a major step, but because the judges are so autonomous, we're not sure what kind of impact it will have."
Sweeney said the attorney general would not be "looking over the shoulders of individual judges," but rather would review the issue statewide to see if he could make recommendations to the state legislature about how to improve the way drunk driving cases are handled.
"The attorney general is obviously interested in drunk driving laws and how they can be bettered," Sweeney said. "But it would be inappropriate for him to comment on specific judges."
Sweeney said the attorney general's office was "extremely sensitive" to the separation of the judicial and administrative bodies of state government.
"We agree there's a need for the judiciary to be independent, but we also need to make sure the laws are being applied," he said.
On Friday, Curran said he has no control over what individual judges do when it comes to sentencing. "But as the top law enforcement officer in the state, I certainly have a right to express an opinion on this," he said.
Layman said he met with David S. Iannucci, chief legislative officer for the state, on Tuesday to present some legislative proposals and to discuss MADD's concerns about sentencing.
Iannucci said several members of the governor's staff had been assigned to monitor drunkendriving sentences statewide on an ongoing basis and would continue to do so.
If the governor were to make any recommendations, they would come in conjunction with his annual legislative proposals, prior to the start of the 90-day session in January, Iannucci said.