Punishment for repeat DUI offenders inconsistent - WCAX.COM Local Vermont News, Weather and Sports-

Punishment for repeat DUI offenders inconsistent

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BURLINGTON, Vt. -

The defendant's seat is a familiar spot for 49-year-old Mark Mownn. The Ascutney man is facing his 11th DUI.

"We're looking at every possible method to ensure public safety and obtain a result that the state feels is just in this particular instance, said Windsor County Dep. State's Attorney Glenn Barnes.

Mownn's drunk driving arrests span more than 30 years with convictions in Vermont, New Hampshire and New York. In January, Mownn struck a plea deal with Rutland prosecutors to serve just four months behind bars after pleading guilty to his 10th DUI. We wanted to speak to Rutland State's Attorney about the case, but Marc Brierre was on vacation and his deputy, who handled that plea deal, no longer works in the office.

"I don't think it's my place to comment on what happened in that prior case. I quite frankly don't know the facts surrounding it. There could have been any number of issues that led to that particular resolution," Glenn Barnes said.

In Windsor County, prosecutors plan to charge him as a habitual offender -- or someone who already has three felony convictions. It allows the state to seek a life sentence. It's a threat prosecutors often make, but that few offenders end up serving. According to Vermont corrections there are only seven people incarcerated under this statute -- the majority are not DUI related. This comes as no surprise to Senator Dick Sears (D-Bennington County) who has spent his career fighting for tougher DUI laws. "We are trying are our best to cut down on prison population in this state, and unfortunately I think the alternatives for habitual DUI offenders aren't available right now," he said.

Vermont has a three strikes law. Drivers lose their licenses for life after their third DUI conviction. They face a minimum prison penalty of four days and a maximum sentence of five years. For four or more DUIs, the minimum prison penalty increases to eight days, with a maximum of 10 years.

Reporter Jennifer Reading: Is the state doing enough to keep these dangerous drivers off the road right now?

Sen. Dick Sears: The good news is that the vast majority of those arrested for and convicted for a 1st or 2nd DUI -- we never see them again...  The bad news is we've got this relatively small number of drunk drivers who are habitual and they're obviously driving without a license. The license means nothing to them.

Drivers like Arnold Gardner. The St. Albans man holds the state record for DUI convictions. In 1998, he was sent to prison for life after his 17th DUI. "You've proven yourself a real hazard, a real danger to the people of this state," said Judge Michael Kupersmith, at his 1998 sentencing.
But three years later, the habitual offender was a free man. Prison officials said his life sentence meant nothing because the majority of it was suspended by the court.

"Most of these folks, if they're not behind the wheel, are not particularly dangerous," Sen. Sears said.

In the last five years, 819 drivers have been convicted DUI 3 or higher. Ninety-six percent of them face jail time, or a restrictive prison alternative.  Breaking down the numbers by county, Chittenden had the most convictions (198), followed by Rutland (107), Washington (80). Windsor (73) and Windham (53) counties.  According to Corrections, there are currently 93 people behind bars in Vermont for drunk driving. Thirty of them are serving time for four or more DUIs. Those habitual drunk drivers will spend anywhere between a year and-a-half to 15 years in prison.

Prosecutors tell Channel 3 there is nothing in state statute that guarantees punitive consistency across counties. Multiple DUIs are handled on a case-by-case basis at the discretion of the individual prosecutor.

Senator Sears, who heads the Senate Judiciary Committee, says repeat drunk drivers will be a focus for his committee this legislative session. He hopes the Affordable Care Act will create opportunities for prison alternatives.  He suggests turning a portion of the Windsor work camp into a facility for habitual drunk drivers, that fulfills punitive obligations and offers treatment, but does not tie up prison beds.

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