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How psychology may be working against repeat offenders

Here in the United States, drunk driving is seen as an epidemic that kills hundreds, if not thousands, of people every year. To protect other drivers and hold those who choose to make this reckless decision accountable for their actions, policy makers across the nation have enacted laws designed to prevent further alcohol-related traffic accidents.

But for decades, policy makers across the nation have argued over the most effective way to prevent someone from becoming a repeat offender. Some have suggested that harsher penalties are needed, giving way to new legislation that focuses on incarceration and steep fines. Others believe this does little to address any underlying mental problems that could be perpetuating drinking habits. People in this group believe that treatment programs and rehabilitation are more effective at curbing drunk driving.

According to some researchers, when we look at the psychology of a repeat DWI offender, we can see that the latter of these two methods would be far more successful at reducing repeat offenses than the standard method of incarceration and fines. Let's take a look.

In one particular study conducted a few years back, researchers set out to answer this question: if people know that repeat offenders face harsher penalties than first-time offenders, why do so many people choose to commit the crime of drinking and driving multiple times?

What researchers discovered was that many repeat offenders were unable to associate negative experiences, such as being arrested for a drunk-driving offense, with the serious consequences that can follow. It's because of this cognitive disassociation that a first-time offender may make the decision to drink and drive again, even though they know this behavior is considered reckless or negligent.

This study highlights an important fact that lawmakers here in New York, as well as the rest of the nation, should consider: individuals who are unable to associate an act with negative consequences may benefit more from treatment or rehabilitation programs rather than incarceration and steep fines. This would require legislators to reconsider the state of current laws and make changes that would give judges the ability to assess penalties in a way that will truly reduce drinking and driving down the road.

Source: Elements Behavioral Health, "Study Examines Brain Reaction in DUI Repeat Offenders," Sept. 24, 2010

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