While we applaud Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s ongoing efforts to revitalize and open up the North Country through a series of forward-looking proposals and policies, we’re skeptical about the trial balloon he floated at the State of the State Address on Tuesday, Jan. 8 that will, if enacted by state lawmakers, suspend driver’s licenses for life for motorists found guilty of three convictions of driving while intoxicated in their lifetime.
Don’t get us wrong: We’re not advocating reckless behavior and our hearts are with those who have lost loved ones as a result of impaired motorists, but we feel such an upgrade to the already-severe state DWI laws would be needlessly punitive, urban-centered and would hog tie the courts and strip them of the autonomy required to adjudicate cases based on extenuating and local circumstances.
Punitive. We’d like to think that a clear line of demarcation between youthful indiscretion and lifetime stupidity is drawn after a pair of alcohol-related brushes with the law. We’ve all done ridiculous things in our youth and none of us are the same people that we were a decade ago, much less 25 years ago.
Under a Three Strikes law, otherwise law-abiding citizens who made two mistakes during their adolescence — a time when the frontal lobe, the part of the brain that controls decision-making isn’t yet fully matured — can have their lives irrevocably remain in pieces a half-century later.
Revoking someone’s license later in life after just one more lapse of judgement, say driving a short distance down an unpopulated stretch of rural road while just a sliver over the .08 BAC limit, would be counterproductive and serve no real purpose other than to strip people of their livelihoods — especially if they’re self-employed rural residents who depend on their vehicles to provide for their families. Taking away a person’s right to self-determination would only add to the state’s bloated welfare ranks and cripple a population that needs a life preserver — not an anchor.
Urban. The governor’s proposal sees its roots based in bills put forth to their respective chambers in 2012 by Martin Golden, the state senator and former cop from Brooklyn who sponsored the SAFE Act, and state assemblywoman Nicole Malliotakis, a Republican who represents parts of Brooklyn and Staten Island.
Both lawmakers represent heavily urban districts that provide a robust blend of highly developed public and private transportation networks, including subway and bus lines, livery and private car services, pedicabs and rickshaws, that fan out through densely-packed urban neighborhoods that for many residents, offer most, if not all, of their day-to-day needs and are easily navigated by foot or bike should one choose to do so.
The North Country, on the other hand, is rural, remote and provides no such networks despite covering an area larger than the entirety of New England, making vehicular transport a must, not only for work and recreation, but also for social engagement.
A Three Strikes amendment would not only disproportionately affect the wide swath of the state who depend on their vehicle for their daily needs, but would also preemptively punish them for their choice of residence and would drastically limit their recreational choices.
It also would kneecap small businesses that depend on alcohol sales to stay afloat and impact healthy social interaction as residents choose to stay put over the risk of venturing out to a local establishment to fend off the long, gloomy winters that have more in common with the classic 1980 Stanley Kubrick film The Shining than the romantic glitz and glamor of the New York metropolitan area where friends, family and fun are just a subway stop away.
Hogtied. Stripping local authorities from discretion in handing down sentences is further evidence of an overreaching state apparatus, one that fails to take into account extenuating circumstances, namely those of a local nature.
How would the law affect, say, emergency personnel and first responders called away from their homes to assist an elderly resident? How about a sportsman, one who had no intention of going anywhere after an outdoors tipple, speeding a wounded buddy to a medical facility after a potentially fatal interaction with our gorgeous-yet-deadly natural landscape? Or any other circumstance derived from this breathtaking, yet underserved, section of the state?
And like with other mandatory minimum sentences — including the federally-imposed requirements imposed upon courts in the mid-1980s to combat the country’s growing crack epidemic that are now starting to be rolled back based on a quarter-century of accrued data — a Three Strikes proposal would put the wrong sort of people out to pasture for too long and would bog down a justice system that’s already mired in superfluous cases.
Instead of reducing local judges’ autonomy, we should be increasing their discretion and letting them make decisions that represent the best interests of the communities in which they serve — not edicts imposed by faraway strongholds of power that have only the most basic cultural and geographical understanding of the communities to which they aim to protect.
Again, while we’re appreciative of the state’s renewed interest in the North Country and look forward to strengthening the bond with our friends to the south, this proposal spells three strikes against the region and we can’t help but feel as if other, more progressive and locally-based efforts can be undertaken to combat the scourge of drunk and impaired driving thus ensuring safe roads, healthy social networks and long-term economic sustainability for the region.
That’s something we can get behind, no seat belt required.