A Criminal Enterprise

Devastating Drunk Driving Story Touches Upon Important Sentencing Questions

Posted in Uncategorized by Robert Smith on September 13, 2009

The Austin Statesman leads with this article:  “10 years after accident that disfigured her, Jacqui Saburido says she’s trying to find peace: The life she wants remains out of reach; accepting the life she has is now her goal.”

I’m still processing, and hope to write more later, but the article is a must read for anyone thinking about sentencing issues—especially those that relate to drunk driving (not because the article discusses such issues explictly, but because the article captures the complexity of responding to drunk drivers and their victims).

Here is the backdrop:

Ten years ago, Saburido was a beautiful, 20-year-old woman from a wealthy family, studying English in Austin and taking a break from engineering classes at a Caracas university. On the night of Sept. 19, 1999, she went to a party on Lake Travis. She stayed late, dancing merengue and salsa, and about 4 a.m. she and three friends caught a ride with a young Russian student back into the city.

At the same time, Reggie Stephey, an 18-year-old wide receiver at Lake Travis High School, was driving home from another party in Austin. He had been drinking.

On a curve along RM 2222, Stephey’s 1996 Yukon SUV plowed into the car carrying Saburido and her friends. The crash killed the driver, Natalia Chyptchak Bennett, and Laura Guerrero, a 20-year-old University of Texas student from Colombia. Two other passengers were pulled from the wrecked car as it burst into flames.

Saburido, trapped in the front passenger seat, burned for nearly a minute before paramedics could put out the fire. Horrific burns covered nearly her entire body, except for the bottom of her legs and feet.

Reggie spent seven years in prison for a horrible decision that he made as a teenager. In some real sense, this is a waste. The state pays to warehouse a kid who made a bad decision with deadly consequences, but who seemingly had the ability to contribute to society. Now, a decade behind and an ex felon ….

On the other hand, Jacqui will in all liklihood struggle (mentally and physically) for the rest of her life. So Reggie did the time for his crime, but he moves on (though I’m not doubting that he will carry the burden) as Jacqui continues to suffer. The sense that you can pay for your crime with a fixed term doesn’t add up here.

The story also highlights that Jacqui forgave Reggie, and that the two have worked together on anti-drunk driving campagins, but that she has mixed feelings about his enrollment at UT. He studies, she feels stagnant. This is a reminder that forgiveness is an act that varies in degree and fluctuates over time.  And a reminder that we should be thoughtful about its role in criminal sentencing.

One response is to severely ratchet up drunk driving sentences. But I am very skeptical that this is the right answer. This story emphasizes how the law is unable to make the victim whole and can simulataneously both over-sentence and under-sentence the offender. I think lawmakers, and those who think about public policy, would be wise to meet with people like Jacqui and Reggie when thinking through how drunk driving sentences should operate.

One more thing. Jacqui’s family is wealthy. But what about those who are not? 9/11 victims family fund (for example) and basic public assistance are not equal support schemes. Of course, victim’s compensation (and support) schemes vary widely. But it seems to me that one possible societal response to fill the gap left where our criminal laws inevitably fail, is to use scarce resources to beef up assistance (monetary, emotional, community support) and not to dramatically increase prison sentences. This is not to say that we should be soft on drunk driving, just that we should understand the complexity, and finds ways to respond to drunk drivers that supplement for part (or in some cases all) of prison sentences and attempt to address the gap left open when a prison sentence ends but the impact of the offense does not.

2 Responses

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  1. Bidish J. Sarma said, on September 14, 2009 at 4:30 pm

    Thanks for posting this Rob. In my last year of law school, I explored how an effort to provide victims some sort of compensation (in the context of post-genocide reparations) is worthwhile, important to the victims, and can be an intelligent use of resources. I haven’t given thought to how this might work in the US CJS, however. Might be worth thinking about more carefully….

  2. Chris said, on April 23, 2012 at 2:44 am

    If there was a real penalty when people are caught it would discourage it more than it does now. I know so many people who’ve gotten DUI’s and a few of them still choose to do it…I don’t know thousands of people either…A few thousand dollars along with a day or two in jail does almost nothing to stop it. After the fact I would agree with you but before they hurt someone they should get at least 6 months in jail…It would be a big decision then to choose to drink and drive.

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