Prison release of repeat drunk drivers on payment of fines sparks controversy

By Jason Pan  /  Staff reporter

Sat, Oct 24, 2015 - Page 3

A controversial new policy to release convicted drunk drivers upon paying their fines, currently implemented by judicial agencies in central Taiwan, has been widely criticized by the public and led to disagreements among government officials.

On Friday, it was reported that Taichung District Prosecutors’ Office had earlier this year decided to ease up on the “three strikes law” with the release of more than 300 repeat drunk drivers from the Taichung Prison.

The decision was made in response to prison overcrowding, which has exceeded capacity and depleting the resources of correctional facilities, Taichung prosecutors said.

Taichung Prison, administered under the Ministry of Justice’s (MOJ) Agency of Corrections, has space for 1,076 inmates, but it currently holds about 5,500, Warden Huang Wei-hsien (黃維賢) said.

The increase was attributed to the increased of spot checks cracking down on drink driving in recent years, which led to an upsurge in convictions, as ministry statistics indicated that 6,384 new inmates were serving sentences for violating public safety in 2012, with about 90 percent involving repeat offenders.

The figure increased to 7,585 new inmates in 2013, and to 11,068 last year on convictions of violating public safety, which accounted for about 30 percent of prisoners nationwide.

Judicial agencies in Taipei, New Taipei City, Tainan and Kaohsiung disapproved of the Taichung prosecutors’ policy, and said they will not be lenient on drunk-drivers and have no plan to release them before finishing their sentences, despite these cities also having prison overcrowding problems.

In response to the report, Minister of the Interior Chen Wei-zen (陳威仁) expressed concern yesterday that lighter penalties with options of commuting sentences by paying fines for repeat drunk-driving might undermine government efforts to crack down on such offenses.

The law states that a prison sentence of less than six months can be commuted to a fine.

However, people convicted of three drunk driving offenses within five years face a prison sentence on their third conviction — also known as the “three strikes law”— without the option of a fine, under a ministry policy introduced in 2013.

Chen said he was very worried about a possible upswing of drink- driving cases if repeat offenders were allowed to pay a fine instead of serving a prison sentence.

Sending repeat offenders to prison is an effective way to deter drink-driving because many people are not worried about paying fines, but are afraid to go to prison, he said.

The Ministry of the Interior hopes to discuss the issue with MOJ to see how best to strike a balance in implementing the relevant regulations, Chen added.

Additional reporting by CNA