Traditional sentences that are limited to fines and suspended jail time do little to reduce recidivism. Attempts should be made to tailor sentences for every defendant by making use of the suggestions, where appropriate, below.

Place Hardcore Drunk Drivers on Intensive Monitoring and Supervision by Probation

Intensive supervision probation should run concurrently with the offender’s rehabilitation program to ensure successful completion. Intensive supervision probation is one of the most effective strategies for hardcore drunk drivers. These programs usually require an offender to meet frequently with a judge or probation officer or both. Use several interventions, which can include alcohol abuse treatment, ignition interlocks, home detention, victim impact panels and community supervision. An average duration of the program is four to five months and may be followed by a period of “normal” probation.

If probation monitoring is not available, consider judicial monitoring or review dates. A good example of judicial monitoring is the San Joaquin County Superior Court’s comprehensive DUI program.

Recognize the Impact of Fines on Hardcore Drunk Drivers

Research shows no correlation between fines and reduced recidivism. However, while their deterrent value appears minimal, fines and other financial sanctions serve as retribution, which is one of the objectives of sentencing.

Judges should take care to craft fines so as not to decrease the restorative value of the sentence. Judges can work with offenders to manage their obligation and use fines as a tool to achieve behavioral change. Judges are not bound by guidelines. Consider payment plans, suspend fines or stay payments as an incentive for offenders who comply with their sentences.

Home Confinement

Consider home confinement with electronic monitoring and sobriety testing, where appropriate. It relieves jail overcrowding and is a low cost, acceptable alternative to jail if the sanction period is longer than the jail sentence and if it is used in conjunction with treatment and other behavior reinforcing mechanisms. Under home confinement, offenders are ordered by the court to be at home during specified hours, allowing for pre-scheduled periods of work or treatment. It permits the offender to stay in the community, maintain employment and avoid the stigma of incarceration.

The costs of equipment, installation and monitoring should be paid by the offender. Numerous research studies have found home confinement with electronic monitoring to be effective. A study of the Los Angeles County Electronic Monitoring/Home Detention program found one year after entering the program the recidivism rate for offenders was cut by about 33 percent. Offenders said the program was effective because it offered monitoring, structure and support for an extended time period (Jones, Lacey, and Wiliszowski, 1996). Based on 2011 information from the NTSB, 43 states and the District of Columbia permit this sanction.


The number of DWI offenders under some form of correctional supervision almost doubled between 1986 and 1997 (Maruschak, 1999). In the past 15 years, most states have adopted some form of mandatory jail sentence for misdemeanor DWI and prison sentences for felony DWI. The effects of these laws have been hotly debated, and the evidence from studies of incarceration as a specific and general deterrent to DWI is mixed.

In general, the available evidence suggests that as a specific deterrent, jail terms are extremely costly and are no more effective in reducing DWI recidivism among either first-time or repeat DWI offenders than other sanctions. There are some indications that the short-term effectiveness depends on the extent of public awareness, the risk of incarceration, and the size of the community. These short-term effects are initially strong following the public announcement of a sanction, but often dissipate over a period of about three years. Some studies have found that the use of 2-day jail sentences had a general deterrent effect for first- time offenders yet others concluded that jail terms were ineffective.

Consider Staggered Sentencing with Intensive Probation

Staggered sentencing has been widely implemented for several years in Minnesota and several other states. Staggered sentencing involves the court dividing or staggering the repeat offender’s jail sentence into three or more equal periods with probation between each period.

The offender serves the first period of incarceration, but each successive period can be forgiven if the offender proves to the sentencing judge that he or she is meeting rehabilitation criteria. In 2003, a preliminary analysis by the Minnesota House of Representatives research department found that staggered sentencing reduced DWI recidivism by nearly 50 percent while saving considerable jail resources.

A longer study released by NHTSA in 2011 showed staggered sentencing continued to reduce recidivism by over 30 percent. Staggered sentencing was pioneered by Judge James Dehn in Minnesota in 1998.

The San Joaquin DUI Monitoring Court uses a similar approach, called a multi-track approach, with all repeat DWI offenders. Lower risk offenders who are not alcohol or drug dependent go into Track One, a monitoring track. Higher risk offenders who are assessed as needing drug and/or alcohol treatment go into Track Two, a treatment track. The program lasts a minimum of 18 months for most participants. This program has significantly reduced DWI recidivism and DWI crashes. A September 2012 study by NPC Research details the process evaluation and best practices for other courts to replicate this program.

Employ the Use of Vehicle Sanctions

Vehicle sanctions such as immobilization and impoundment are a means of separating hardcore drunk drivers from their vehicles while they are receiving sanctions and rehabilitation. These sanctions often are applied administratively. Immobilizing an offender’s vehicle (such as using a “club” to lock the steering wheel or a “boot” to lock a wheel) has the advantage of preventing the vehicle from being used by the hardcore offender while avoiding the procedural problems and costs involved with vehicle confiscation and storage. Impoundment is applied primarily against hardcore drunk drivers and its application varies among jurisdictions. Some target drivers who violate license suspension, while others use the sanction only after repeated DWI convictions.

Order the Installation of Offender-Funded Ignition Interlock Devices

Ignition interlocks devices should be ordered on all cars under title of or driven by a hardcore drunk driver as a means of preventing the offender from driving drunk while receiving punishment and treatment. In order to achieve long-term reductions in recidivism, this sanction must be used in conjunction with treatment, when appropriate. When used as part of a comprehensive program of monitoring and reporting, interlocks reduce recidivism by 40 to 95 percent as long as the interlock remains on the car (Marques, 2001). But in absence of other measures, the effect on recidivism disappears when the device is removed. These devices can substantially reinforce the effectiveness of substance abuse treatment and should be required during the entire treatment and aftercare period.

Ignition interlock devices should not be used as a substitute for licensing sanctions but rather in concert with licensing actions. They should be required:

  • To be installed by an approved technician, with all of the costs paid by the offender
  • As a condition of license reinstatement after a period of suspension
  • Whenever there are exceptions to license suspension or revocation, such as conditional licenses.
  • For an appropriate time period of at least 6 months or longer after incarceration or until the offender has completed treatment satisfactorily and can prove through probationary monitoring that he or she is capable of driving responsibly.

All 50 states, the District of Columbia and Puerto Rico have either mandatory or discretionary interlock laws. However, most studies show that ignition interlocks remain underutilized.

Utilize Dedicated Detention Facilities, Where Available

DWI detention facilities provide confinement in conjunction with supervised substance abuse treatment services. Detention usually ranges from two weeks to 90 days. These facilities, dedicated to DWI offenders, offer a sentencing alternative for multiple DWI offenders and help ease overcrowding at traditional correctional facilities.

Some DWI jails, which are used throughout the country, operate similarly to residential treatment programs. Others operate as lock-up facilities with a heavy emphasis on treatment and reform. In some cases, offenders are permitted to volunteer for these types of facilities.

In Suffolk County, New York, the courts and the penal system work together, giving the offenders a choice of either being sentenced to the state penitentiary for two or three years or fulfilling their sentence through a DWI program that involves spending 6 months in the Suffolk County DWI jail followed by a 5–year intensive probation program. If they violate the terms of their sentence or probation at any time during the program, they must return to the state penitentiary and serve their full sentence. This program has been highly successful because of the combination of long-term treatment combined with close supervision and follow-up over a long period of time. The offender is highly motivated to change his or her behavior.

Supplement Incarceration with Treatment and Aftercare

When confinement, including home confinement, is necessary, researchers recommend counseling and treatment to deal with addiction and lifestyle changes as deemed necessary by a thorough assessment of the offender. Incarceration alone, although feared, does not teach alternative behavior for individuals with alcohol-related problems. A research study in California found first-time offenders sentenced to jail had almost double the number of subsequent DWI convictions as offenders assigned to treatment and license restriction (DeYoung 1997).

>Avoid Substituting Community Service for Harsher Sanctions

As a stand-alone alternative to harsher sentencing, community service appears to have little beneficial effect on hardcore offenders. The Foundation for Advancing Alcohol Responsibility, NTSB and Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD) all recommend eliminating the federal traffic safety provision establishing community service as an alternative to incarceration as outlined in Federal law. Difficulties of the program include finding suitable jobs, liability risk, the cost of supervision and the offender’s failure to comply with the order.

Minimum 10-Year Look-Back Periods

State laws should require a look-back period of at least 10 years to allow judges to consider an individual’s previous 10-year history when evaluating their driving record  and applying penalties and sanctions. Currently at least 20 states have a look-back period of less than 10 years.

Judges can also encourage the maintenance of records on test refusal and suspensions for the entire look-back period. The National Hardcore Drunk Driver Project, along with NHTSA, MADD and the NTSB recommend states maintain a look-back period of at least 10 years. Long record retention and look-back periods are important because of the low probability of arrest and the need for long-term measures to change the behavior of hardcore drunk drivers (NTSB 2000). Judges can require clerks of the court and departments of motor vehicles to retain records.

Statewide Tracking and Record-keeping

Statewide tracking and recordkeeping should be supported as a means to identify hardcore drunk drivers and to ensure that all jurisdictions within a state have accurate information concerning an offender’s record. Current technology allows automated electronic database management systems to connect law enforcement, motor vehicle administrators, the courts, and probation and treatment professionals so that a complete information loop can be achieved. Accurate, up-to-date information reduces the likelihood that repeat offenders will mistakenly be dealt with as first time drunk drivers.

Effective Case Flow Management

Case flow management techniques should be instituted and supported to reduce the likelihood of overloaded courts and the possibility that hardcore drunk drivers will fall through the cracks. According to the National Association for Court Management

(NACM) in its Core Competency Curriculum Guidelines, “properly understood, case flow management is the absolute heart of court management.”

Effective case flow management must be built on a solid management foundation that includes:

  1. Leadership
  2. Commitment among judges and court staff to managing the pace of litigation
  3. Communication within the court and with lawyers and other institutional participants connected with the case
  4. A learning environment that enables a court to be flexible in the face of changing events (Best Practices Institute, 2002).

“ The misdemeanor case flow system in Harris County, Texas ensures that the docket moves fast and is not overloaded and that means defendants get the time and attention their cases deserve. Our court manager runs a rigid and intimate system and that is why it works. Plus, our court is big enough to handle all of the cases.” – The Honorable Michael Fields