Philadelphia District Attorney Larry Krasner recently provided a list of offenses that won’t require cash bail, in fulfillment of a campaign promise. Can I tell you why I’m so angry that DUIs are on that list?
Let me start by saying that, traditionally, a first offense got you released on your own recognizance unless there was some kind of injury, or you were driving with a suspended license or no license at all. I also know that “first offense” is usually more of a “first time he was caught” offense, and that a lot of people who “knew someone,” including many Philadelphia police officers, were the happy beneficiaries of a shrugged shoulder and a pat on the head.
So in some ways, Krasner is simply following in the footsteps of his predecessors. And yes, I am aware that you can blow enough alcohol on the breathalizer to light a Bunsen burner, or just barely exceed the limit, and you’re still “driving under the influence.” I know that we need to make some distinctions between the chronic drunkards and the people who have too much Chablis and too little brie before they head to their nice suburban homes. And when I reached out to the office for clarification, I learned that while the presumption is strongly against any cash bail at all, aggravating circumstances still might warrant a cash bail being set.
But for me, that’s not enough. We need to let people know that a car is a 2-ton weapon that is as much a threat to the public safety when operated by a drunken fool as an AR-15 wielded by a sick kid. We need to make them understand that drunken driving isn’t just a regrettable societal faux pas. We need to make them afraid to get caught and have to deal with the consequences. Because some actions have dire consequences.
I once knew a boy my age, from my neighborhood, who would have graduated high school in 1979, like me. Kids drank back then (like they do now,) listened to 8-tracks of America and the Beach Boys (like they don’t do now) and didn’t really care about safety belts. Youth is invincible, and bad things don’t happen.
Except on a summer night in 1978, something very bad happened. The boy I knew and on whom I had an immense crush, though he’d never get a chance to hear it from me, was thrown through the windshield when the driver of his car hit a tree. The driver was drunk.
This boy-man has spent the last 40 years confined to a wheelchair, deprived of his future, his memory, and the joys and sorrows of a blessedly common life. He doesn’t have graduation pictures in his photo album, doesn’t have a diploma framed in dust-covered glass on his mother’s wall, doesn’t have a girlfriend, a fiancee, a wife, has no children of his own and is, in fact, a first grader trapped in the body of a middle aged man. His world is enclosed by a few blocks of sidewalk, he is cared for by a loving but aging mother, and he’s visited by a few friends who come by and who bridge that foggy expanse between then and now. Mercifully, though, he doesn’t understand how the ledger of his life has been so unfairly balanced by a friend’s youthful mistake.
I realize that for many people, jailing a man or woman for drinking and driving is counterproductive, since they are addicts, and need help. I know far too well how we look at addicts in this fair city, since we’re actually willing to allow heroin users to shoot up at municipally-sanctioned centers. If we’re ready to let hard core addicts violate the Controlled Substances Act in broad daylight, why would we lock up the guy who drinks a six pack and then heads home after a hard day’s work?
I know someone who spends his day in a wheelchair, because his buddy drove that 1978 Monte Carlo car into a tree. I know other families who visit their children and parents at cemeteries. If Larry Krasner needs proof that victims exist, I’ll take him on a walk around my neighborhood.