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More Jail Time for Vehicular Homicide

February 24, 1998
By: Kalli Sower
MDN Columbia Bureau

A doctor from Springfield, has seen many deaths involving alcohol-related accidents in twenty years working in the emergency room. No accident has hit as close to home for Jim Blaine as a 1970 wreck that killed his sister.

The man responsible killed four people and had a blood alcohol level two times the legal limit.

Blaine recalls, "That night I actually took my gun and was driving to the jail to take care of him."

Blaine has organized an effort to keep drunk drivers from getting behind the wheel.

Missouri state legislators are trying to amend a law that would come down harder on drivers who kill while driving drunk.

Current law states that a person is charged with involuntary manslaughter. The felony carries a prison sentence of up to seven years. Legislators, however, are seeking to amend the charge to vehicular manslaughter which would carry a sentence of anywhere from five to 15 years.

The law also tries to keep those under the influence of alcohol off the streets. Now adults may not refuse a breath test if they are suspected of driving under the influence of alcohol. However, a minor may refuse the test and no action will be taken against them. The change in law would not allow those under 21 to refuse the breath test without facing the same penalties as adults.

Minors and adults will be subject to the same forfeiture laws, meaning they may have their vehicle taken away. They may also have their license suspended of have it taken away all together.

State Representative Craig Hosmer is behind the proposed changes. The Springfield Democrat says, "The vehicle becomes a weapon and, if you continue to [drive while intoxicated], we will take that weapon away."

Stiffer penalties on vehicular homicide, however, will mean more money and less prison space. In fiscal year 1997, it cost a little more than 30-dollars per day to imprison an inmate. Over the course of a year,it would cost a little more than eleven-thousand-dollars to imprison a single inmate.

Tim Kniest (KAH-neest) is Public Information Officer for the Missouri Corrections Department. He says Missouri had the lowest cost for its inmates in the nation last year, but adds, "Cost is always an issue in terms of incarcerating inmates."

While the corrections department wants beds for all those who commit crimes, Kniest says the department is also facing spacing issues.

He says, "We've been operating at 160 percent of design capacity for some time."

The Missouri prison system, however, is able to accomodate all its inmates and is building more facilities, which will be in place by the year 2000.

The fact remains, however, that alcohol offenders may not spend any time in jail. The man who killed Blaine's sister went free. Blaine also says 80-percent of people who do the killing in alcohol-related accidents have never been charged with a D-W-I before. Blaine knows it is impossible to catch all offenders, but cites deterence as the key to safer streets.