What will it take?
Bodies pile up. Lives are ravaged. The 15,000 arrested in Massachusetts each year are just an unlucky fraction of a much, much larger problem.
People keep driving drunk. Because, despite the carnage, we just don’t take it seriously. Judges slap offenders on the wrists. Or display a contortionist’s flexibility to set drunk drivers free, as if their crime were a mere indiscretion, an error in judgment.
This tolerance for the intolerable was epitomized in a horrific case that wrapped up in Middlesex Superior Court this month.
On April 21, 2011, after drinking at a Somerville party, Kenneth Belew loaded up his car with five friends and set off on a 3 a.m. McDonald’s run. After he ran a red light, his passengers begged him to slow down. But Belew sped up to 91 miles per hour, on a part of the McGrath Highway where the limit was 30. He lost control, crashing into a side rail.
Isabella Dasilva and Mayara Alves, both 16, were partially ejected from the car. It was their bodies against the barrier that stopped the car from falling over the side of the elevated road. Alves died at the scene; Dasilva two days later. “I was driving and I am drunk,” Belew said, screaming and crying. “Please take me to jail; that’s what I deserve.” His blood-alcohol level was more than twice the legal limit. Belew, then 21, has already had his license suspended four times and has beencharged with assault and battery on a police officer and other offenses.
Middlesex District Attorney Gerry Leone’s prosecutor asked for four to five years in state prison for each death. But Judge Mitchell Kaplan saw potential in Belew and worried he would do badly in state prison. He wanted to give him 2½ years for each girl’s death, and not in state prison, but in a county jail, a far easier proposition. The judge asked the prosecutor if she was calling for a longer sentence for reasons “other than because there were two deaths.”
“Other than that, I can’t come up with a rationale for a sentence that’s [longer],” he said.
Other than that? It’s not enough that Belew ended two lives and ruined many more?
“It was very callous,” said Joan Amon, an attorney who represents Dasilva’s family and is a longtime friend. “The family basically think he got away with murder. They got a lifetime sentence.”
It’s good, and right, that Belew was remorseful. And as a rule, I’m all for sentences that take account of a defendant’s potential for rehabilitation.
But this sentence – and Kaplan’s insensitivity — feed the wrong-headed perception that drunken driving is more a common human failing than a crime.
None of this is surprising to those who recall the Globe Spotlight series last year on the leniency many judges show to drunk drivers. Or to David DeIuliis, spokesman for Mothers Against Drunk Driving, who is used to seeing judges and juries hand down light sentences.
“MADD has been in business for 30 years,” he said. “Everybody knows drinking and driving is a bad idea. . . . When a judge does something like this, it plays into it, almost as if deaths from drunk driving are not as important as other deaths.”
Every one of the OUI deaths in this state was preventable. But we’re not going to save anybody as long as drivers like Belew — and the many more whose recklessness somehow doesn’t result in tragedy — are seen as anything less than major offenders.
And as long as judges like Kaplan feed that dangerous myth.Yvonne Abraham is a Globe columnist. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.