Editorial: Behind bars, away from bars

The Patriot Ledger

Victims and their families have long been aware of the wanton destruction caused by repeat drunken drivers.

It was through their advocacy that legislators toughened the laws on those who continue to threaten the public by getting behind the wheel of a car after boozing it up.

Now it appears the courts are taking the offenses seriously and meting out the kind of punishment many have been demanding to keep those hardcore, repeat offenders off the roads.

Several stories this week have brought home the severity with which the criminal justice system now responds to drunken drivers with multiple convictions.

Robert Scheller, a recidivist drunken driver with at least 12 convictions, who apparently has never gotten out of denial that he cannot drink and drive in safety, received a prison sentence of 6 to 8 years. That is hard time in a state correctional facility, not the looser constricts of a county jail.

 A day later in the same building, Brian Johns of Abington was handed a 3 1/2-year jail sentence for vehicular homicide and third offense after pleading guilty to striking and killing Robert McCormick while the Rockland man was riding his bicycle. Judge John P. Connor Jr. had initially planned to sentence Johns to 21/2 years in jail, but added the extra time after hearing details of the grisly accident from which Johns fled.

 Few will disagree that alcoholism is a disease, one that requires treatment and compassion and an illness that has an effect on many people beyond the one who is afflicted with it.

 But the problem is many who have this disease avoid appropriate treatment. The weekly box you see on this page proves that treatment is not effective if the patient refuses to participate and finds enablers at home and in the criminal justice system.

 Scheller and Johns are two prime examples. When Scheller was arrested a year ago in Marshfield for drunken driving, it was discovered he was involved in a drunken driving accident in Pembroke a week earlier, where the police decided not to charge him but instead had Marshfield police take him home. Thankfully, a grand jury rectified that error.

 When Johns pleaded guilty earlier this week, Connor asked, as required by law, where he had his last drink before the accident.

 Johns apparently misunderstood the question and in an honest and quite revealing response said he was drinking at a picnic last Saturday, just five days before his court appearance.

 There are far too many people constitutionally incapable of getting honest with themselves when it comes to the reality that they cannot have just one drink, because it leads to more and that leads to being impaired and then potentially turning a car into a two-ton killing machine.

New laws allow judges to “look back” at the entirety of a drunken driver’s record and that has resulted in many repeat convictions. But for far-too-many incorrigible drunks, ignition locks, loss of license, even the loss of their cars does not stop them from operating vehicles after drinking too much.

 If a cancer patient or someone with diabetes refuses treatment, they, more than anyone, suffer the consequences. When an active, untreated alcoholic gets behind the wheel of a car, people like Robert McCormick pay the price.

 We must stop those who become menaces on our roads when they cannot stop themselves.

If putting them behind bars is the only solution, then safety has to trump compassion. They can’t say they weren’t warned.