Wichita — A bill that was inspired by the deaths of a woman and her 4-year-old daughter is scheduled for a hearing today.
Kansas Rep. Aaron Jack, R-Andover, said he was horrified by the deaths last October of Claudia Mijares and her 4-year-old daughter, who were run down in a school crosswalk by a suspected drunken driver. As a result, he has introduced one of the toughest bills ever proposed in the Kansas Legislature to punish impaired drivers.
“We have simply got to get these people off our roads,” Jack said.
Police say the Mijares deaths occurred at the hands of Gary Hammit, who had four DUI convictions on his record. He faces trial Feb. 23. The deaths have inspired at least two bills that would stiffen prison penalties for drunken drivers and require the state to be more diligent about holding multiple offenders accountable.
But some legislators, and treatment expert Harold Casey of Wichita, predict there might soon be many more drunken and drug-impaired drivers on the road even if legislators toughen penalties.
The reason: state budget cuts in the treatment programs that not only remove offenders from the road but also teach many of them to stay sober.
“What you’re going to see is more criminality, more people on the road, and jails and prisons more crowded because the judicial system won’t have as many treatment programs to send them to,” said Casey, president of the Substance Abuse Center of Kansas and a member of the Kansas Substance Abuse Policy Board, which last year identified problems in the state’s anti-drunken-driving effort.
Unfortunately, Casey is right, said state Sen. Jean Schodorf, R-Wichita. Schodorf has helped Sen. Tim Owens, R-Overland Park, shape a new Senate DUI bill, separate from Jack’s bill, to be proposed this session.
“The corrections department is going to take a huge hit with program closures, and that brings up the question of safety with all those people back on the street,” Schodorf said. “So that raises the tough question for us in the Legislature: Do you try to improve the economy first? Or do you try to solve a problem like drunk driving, and get the statutes in place?”
Jack’s bill, which he co-sponsored with Rep. Lance Kinzer, R-Olathe, would among other things create a new crime in Kansas: aggravated drunken driving.
The bill includes higher penalties for DUI if aggravating factors are present: if drivers are found to have a blood alcohol level of .24, if they’re driving with suspended or revoked licenses, or if they have one or more passengers younger than 18.
Jack also wants to make it easier to convict people even if they refuse to take a breath or blood alcohol test. Upon refusal to take a test, a police officer would simply have to testify that the person arrested was impaired “even in the slightest degree.”
Jack’s bill already has one critic: Owens.
“I think his (Jack’s) bill is premature,” Owens said.
He’s glad Jack is proposing ideas, and hopes to meet with him and other House members intent on toughening DUI laws. But he said there’s no point in creating a new crime, “aggravated DUI,” if the law undergoes further revisions down the road.