The Free Press this week is working on uncovering just how where you are arrested can affect your sentence in an OWI case. Because judges are allowed a great deal of discretion in misdemeanor cases like those involving drunk driving, what might get you no jail time in Utica could land you over 30 in Warren.
Under Michigan law, a first offense OWI conviction can carry up to 93 days in jail, 180 days suspended driver’s license, 360 hours of community service, a $500 fine, and 6 points on your driver’s license. Do all OWI cases result in the maximum sentence? Not hardly. As a matter of fact, it is incredibly rare for a judge to sentence someone to the maximum, especially for a first offense.
Instead, judges in Michigan usually sentence people to a few days (if any) jail time. Community service, probation, fines, and license suspension are used far more often with first offense drunk driving charges. But not all judges use jail time as sparingly as the majority. Some dole it out on a regular basis.
District Judge Kimberly Small in West Bloomfield is notorious for ordering jail time on first offense drunk drivers. Others see it as pointless. Small says the only difference between a first time offender who causes the death of someone and one who doesn’t is luck. She sees jail time as the wakeup call needed to prevent future drunk driving offenses.
There seems to be no evidence, however, that jail time on a first offense OWI is any more effective at reducing recidivism and 2nd offense OWI charges than probation or fines and community service. “I think jailing somebody on a first offense is really a political thing. Look how tough I am,” says one judge. “Statistics show that treatment is what works.”
This isn’t something unique to the Detroit area, nor is it unique to Michigan—it happens all around the country as sentencing guidelines are extremely rare for misdemeanor cases. Judicial discretion is a cornerstone of the criminal courts as the judge should be able to take into consideration all of the facts of a case. But sometimes, judges use this to “send messages” more than to dole out appropriate justice.
Knowing how different judges handle OWI cases differently is just one benefit of having a local criminal defense lawyer. If you’ve been charged with drunk driving and you’re unsure of the penalty you might face, contact our attorneys today to discuss the details of your case and how the jurisdiction in which you were arrested may affect the outcome.