Chronic drunk drivers in Ventura County are increasingly being sentenced to state prison instead of county jail because of tough enforcement of a new state law allowing prosecutors to charge them as felons.
In the first six months of 1989, according to the Ventura County district attorney's office, 12 repeat drunk drivers have been sentenced to state prison for an average of 25 months and four others have received county jail terms averaging 11 months.
Chief Deputy Dist. Atty. Vincent J. O'Neill Jr. said the new law permits the filing of felony charges against anyone arrested for driving under the influence who has three previous drunk-driving convictions within seven years.
Before the law went into effect Jan. 1, O'Neill said, prosecutors could only file misdemeanor charges carrying penalties of six months in jail against drunk drivers with three previous convictions. However, judges could increase the penalty when drunk drivers were also on probation.
Praising the law as an additional tool for prosecutors, O'Neill said the tougher provisions also make it easier for the courts to impose maximum penalties in "the most aggravated case," in which repeat drunk drivers have blood-alcohol levels far above legal limits.
Bradbury Takes Action
Ventura County Dist. Atty. Michael D. Bradbury, whose policies on prosecuting drunk-driving violations have been among the toughest in the state for years, decided last year to take maximum advantage of the new law as soon as it went into effect, O'Neill said.
"We quickly established a blanket policy that we were going to go felony on everything we could," O'Neill said. "For the most aggravated case, where they have not addressed the problem themselves, it's warehouse time.
"We're pleasantly surprised to see that over half those convicted under the new law are going to state prison," he added. "It's real significant that that's happening. Hopefully, it will be an additional deterrent to drunk drivers in Ventura County."
From Jan. 1 to June 30, according to O'Neill, 71 felony drunk-driving charges were filed by county prosecutors under the new law. O'Neill said 25 convictions have been obtained so far, with no acquittals. Most of the convictions resulted from guilty pleas, he noted.
In addition to the tougher law for repeat adult drunk drivers, O'Neill also praised a new state law effective Jan. 1 that takes away the driver's license of anyone between the ages of 13 to 20 convicted of any drug or alcohol offenses, including public drunkenness and possession of an open container of beer in a car.
"We don't have any statistics yet on that, but it is having an effect too," O'Neill said. "The law also delays getting a license for a year in the case of younger teen-agers found guilty of drug and alcohol violations. That's a severe penalty in the view of a lot of teen-agers."