[ OUR OPINION ]
FIRST-TIME drug offenders are to be put on probation and enrolled in drug-treatment programs, according to a law enacted by the 2002 Hawaii Legislature. The state Supreme Court has misread the new law, denying probation to defendants convicted of drug offenses for the first time but who had been convicted of other nonviolent crimes. Legislators now need to amend the law to clarify their intention.
The state Supreme Court has ruled that a first-time drug offender may be denied probation if he has record of other crimes.
State House Judiciary Chairman Eric Hamakawa says legislators two years ago intended for first-time drug offenders to be eligible for probation and drug treatment, even if they previously had committed nonviolent felonies. The Legislature should revise the law to make that intention abundantly clear.
The new law seems plain enough. It requires that "first-time drug offenders," i.e. "a person convicted for the first time for any offense" under statutes dealing with illegal drug possession, be given probation and drug treatment, unless a conviction in the previous five years had been for a "violent felony."
However, Circuit Judge Marie Milks applied statutes dealing with repeat offenders in sentencing Faye Smith to a prison term of six months to five years for a first-time conviction of a drug offense. Smith, who pleaded guilty to the drug charge, had prior convictions for forgery and theft but she had not been convicted of a drug offense or a violent felony.
Legislators should consider injecting some flexibility to judges in sentencing first-time drug offenders. Smith reasonably may have deserved to be denied probation even though she was a first-time drug offender. Milks cited Smith's long-term drug use and failed attempts at drug treatment.
What some lawyers have regarded as contradictory laws -- affecting repeat offenders and first-time drug offenders -- has resulted in prosecutors' appeal of seven cases after judges granted probation to repeat offenders. Public defenders have appealed three cases in which first-time drug offenders had been denied probation.
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Safety still depends on
the person behind wheel
POLICE officials, looking hard to find a silver lining in the increase of traffic fatalities in Hawaii last year, say that at least deaths resulting from collisions are down by one. But the rise remains a grim reminder of the hazards of driving.
Traffic fatalities in Hawaii rose by 16 to 136 last year.
Oahu counted the most deaths on the road with a jump of 13 from 2002 to 81 in 2003. Increasingly congested highways, the rush of urban life and irresponsible drivers all contributed to the total.
Speeding continues to be the major factor in fatal accidents. By October 44 of 54 Oahu traffic deaths involved driving too fast while alcohol-related fatalities have been decreasing in the last few years.
With the highest population of all islands, Oahu can expect to have more accidents, but the fast-growing Big Island saw the highest percentage increase of 25 percent, from 28 deaths in 2002 to 35 last year. Maui was lucky to have had five fewer deaths than in the previous year. Kauai registered five deaths, all victims under age 30.
Protection improvements in motor vehicles, such as seat belts and air bags, and better-designed cars can make driving safer, traffic experts say. However, one component is difficult to manage -- the person behind the steering wheel.
Education and awareness programs help, but the driver's reaction and conduct in a given situation remain unpredictable factors.
Hawaii can take a bit of comfort in the fact that last year's increase of 16 from the 120 in 2002 were not substantial. Still, 136 people lost their lives and that's 136 too many.