This sort of proposal, which Caroline Goggin and Sarah Doiron report on WPRI, makes me think legislators don’t really stop and think legislation through before they submit it:
State Representative Robert Nardolillo announced Tuesday that he is introducing legislation to make driving under the influence of alcohol or drugs with a child under the age of 13 in the vehicle a felony offense.
The legislation will coincide with a Senate bill expected to be introduced by Senator Maryellen Goodwin. Nardolillo said he hopes to introduce the bill to the house sometimes next week. …
Right now, driving under the influence with children under the age of 13 in the car is a misdemeanor punishable with up to one year in prison. Nardolillo’s legislation would change bump the penalty to up to five years in prison, a $5,000 fine and an immediate suspension of the driver’s license.
The article notes an increase in road fatalities in Rhode Island, and Nardolillo blames drunk driving for half of that result. If accurate, the increase happened despite the fact that otherwise law-abiding Rhode Islanders can already land in jail for a year while driving drunk with a child. For Nardolillo’s legislation to make any sense as a preventative measure, he would have to believe that people are rationally deciding that a year in prison if they get caught is worth the risk, but that five years is simply too much. That doesn’t seem likely.
So, the bill is clearly intended to be punitive, not preventative. But who is ultimately hurt by this? A 13-year-old child whose parent is put in jail for five years will lose that parent until he or she is 18. One must be charitable and assume legislators who support this sort of measure simply didn’t stop and think, because intending that outcome would be monstrous.
The legislation is not yet available for review, but the article gives no indication that this is targeted at repeat offenders. It’s possible that a parent who makes a single bad decision, perhaps while in the midst of some ordeal, to drive a 13-year-old child somewhere while just over the legal drinking limit could be pulled over at the end of his or her driveway and go to prison until that child is a legal adult — depriving the child of one parent all through high school.
One suspects a well-meaning legislator would respond to that scenario by suggesting that “nobody intends that,” and that the court would use its discretion, but that’s simply not enough. Prove that an increased sentence would reduce drunk driving with children. Otherwise, you’re just making yourself feel morally superior while creating new life-changing pitfalls for the people you’re supposed to be serving.