First Offenders

  • First-time DWI offenders often have limited understanding of criminal justice policies and procedures which may be gleaned from fictional depictions in books, on television, or in movies. The reality is that from the time they are confronted by law enforcement and suspected of driving while impaired, DWI offenders withstand a series of never-before experiences and processes which they may find difficult to understand. Each step in the process can create anxiety.
  • For many first-time offenders, being charged with a DWI offense is often their first encounter with the criminal justice process. It can be challenging for them to navigate the criminal justice process which may seem overwhelming, disjointed, and confusing. The legal processes can be confusing and lengthy with legal terminology that is difficult to understand. Common concerns include:
    • What is going to happen next?
    • Am I going to jail?
    • Do I need an attorney?
    • What will my family/boss/friends think?
    • What are the financial ramifications?
    • What do I do now?
  • First-time DWI offenders may be ordered to pay a variety of fines and fees that may or may not have obvious relevance to their DWI offense. This often involves wide-ranging encounters with numerous staff and agencies throughout the many stages of the system.
  • First-time DWI offenders must deal with predicaments they have not previously experienced, as well as make decisions they had not contemplated. Many of these decisions are associated with substantial and serious personal and financial ramifications. Thus, simply enduring the costs and experiences of going through the criminal justice process and its corresponding consequences is enough to successfully deter future impaired driving by most first-time DWI offenders.
  • Nevertheless, justice systems should have in place appropriate procedures and assessments to help identify those first-time offenders who are at risk of committing future DWI offenses. Effective assessment results are an important component of the criminal justice system response to first DWI offenders, since all persistent DWI offenders were once first-time offenders.

Some jurisdictions believe harsh penalties for first DWI offenders effectively deter them from ever considering driving after drinking in the future. However, research clearly shows piling on financial penalties and supervision conditions for this population may unnecessarily disrupt prosocial activities and relationships that lead to positive outcomes. Over-sanctioning can also create a hopelessness one can ever get out from under the consequences of their actions. Thus, the result is an adverse impact on recidivism, meaning these individuals are more likely to continue to offend (Gendreau 1995; Andrews & Bonta 1998; McGuire 2001, 2002).

Furthermore, a prosecutorial policy that encourages over-sanctioning true first DWI offenders can lead to more trials and fewer convictions. Policy makers must realize that the DWI defense bar will often calculate the cost-benefit ratio of pleading to the standard first offense versus a not guilty plea and a trial. If the standard plea has overly harsh results then a trial (particularly a jury tried case) may be considered the better option.

Consider, that the prosecutor already has a high burden of proof and DWI cases require extra care given the legal/scientific requirements of proving impairment. Trials are dynamic events. Mistakes can happen, witnesses can forget, paperwork can go missing and defense attorneys can minutely cross-examine prosecution witnesses. Even impaired defendants can be acquitted as a result. There is no treatment nor judicially ordered follow-up for an acquitted defendant. So, an overly harsh prosecution policy can have a negative community impact.

First offense DWI defendants:

  1. Are more likely to be guilty of bad judgment and will not re-offend after experiencing the criminal justice process.
  2. Are young drivers with a high-BAC due to binge drinking.
  3. Believe they are not criminals, and “it was only a DWI.”
  4. Have unrealistic expectations as to likely outcomes and wish to minimize the consequences of their actions with a pre-trial disposition such as diversion with no record of a conviction.
  5. Do not understand the process or know what to expect.
  6. Have a great deal of anxiety related to not knowing what comes next and have a palpable fear of court and jail.
  7. Do not understand what breath or blood evidentiary results mean or that there may be mandatory minimum penalties.
  8. Want to know when they can drive and get their license re-instated.
  9. Often assume once the license revocation period expires, they can drive legally.
  10. Are often unaware that “completion” of their sentence may require payment of all fines and fees or other steps to license reinstatement.