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How Do You Stop a Hardcore Drunk Driver Once and For all?

In Pennsylvania, a judge sent a hardcore drunk driver to state prison on Monday in Doylestown, PA. Sounds fairly routine right? Not really.

The offender, Lawrence Konyves, was being sentenced for his 13th DUI and his first trip to state prison – ever. While that may sound hard to believe, it is not uncommon for hardcore drunk drivers to manipulate the criminal justice system, avoid meaningful penalties and get back on the road to drive drunk again…and again…and again until they kill someone. Judge Bateman may have taken action to prevent a future tragedy with his sentencing decision. He said, “I’m not going to be the 14th judge who gave you a break…and run the risk that you’ll drive again and kill someone.”

This is a case where, at the age of 16 when he was first convicted of DUI, Lawrence Konyves should have been assessed and evaluated for substance abuse and co-occurring mental health disorders. Had that first judge in 1984 recognized a very troubled young man (as evidenced by his DUI and a host of other serious convictions), a dangerous hardcore drunk driver may have stayed off the streets and spared the time-bomb of risking countless lives by his behavior. Any judge along the path of his 12 other DUI convictions could have and should have ordered an assessment that would guide the sentencing decision.  Ironically, Mr. Konyves owns three recovery houses and has masterfully manipulated the system by checking himself into a substance abuse treatment program after his DUI arrests and then plead guilty and asked for time served.

Hardcore drunk drivers are those who drive with a blood alcohol concentration (BAC) of .15 or above, or who do so repeatedly, demonstrated by having more than one impaired driving arrest, and who are highly resistant to changing their behavior despite previous sanctions, treatment or education efforts.  Offenders like Konyves account for the majority of alcohol-impaired fatalities, even though he miraculously didn’t cause any deaths himself. In Pennsylvania, almost 80% of the alcohol-impaired driving fatalities involved a driver with a BAC of .15 or higher according to 2010 fatal crash data from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (Pennsylvania Drunk Driving Statistics.)

In an effort to identify and address the factors that influence DWI recidivism, The Foundation for Advancing Alcohol Responsibility and the Division on Addiction at Cambridge Health Alliance, a teaching affiliate of Harvard Medical School, have begun work on a project to expand and test a Computerized Assessment and Referral System (CARS) for use with a structured diagnostic mental health assessment in DWI intervention and treatment settings. Already piloted with support from the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA), the project recognizes the relationship between psychiatric profiles and driving under the influence among repeat DWI offenders.

In other words, we are working toward a sophisticated, user-friendly tool that will help courts better identify, sentence and treat hardcore drunk drivers like Lawrence Konyves, and reduce recidivism. If these types of assessments can be conducted on hardcore drunk drivers in the future, it will allow better sentencing decisions for hardcore drunk drivers that will protect the public and rehabilitate an offender who is dealing with alcohol and/or drug dependency and other mental health issues as well. These types of offenders don’t respond to traditional sanctions. They need a comprehensive approach.

For now, Mr. Konyves will spend 5-10 years in state prison and two years on probation. Let’s hope he finally gets the treatment he needs so that when he gets back on the road someday, he won’t drive drunk. Otherwise, we have an offender who will be stuck in prison, on the state’s dime, and will continue to be a grave risk to the community.