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Judge: Sentencing Repeat Drunk Drivers Not Easy

December 21, 2009, 9:29 PM by Ben Dunsmoor

Judge: Sentencing Repeat Drunk Drivers Not Easy
The man accused of leading the highway patrol on a deadly high speed chase has made plea deals, driven drunk, and been in and out of prison for the past ten years.

30 year old Jason Larsen-Smith faces vehicular manslaughter charges and his eighth DUI after the eight minute chase Friday that ended with Larsen-Smith hitting a pick-up truck and killing 62 year old Sioux Falls School District custodian Curtis Neuharth.

Larsen-Smith met with detectives for the first time Monday as their investigation into the pursuit and crash continues. The Sioux Falls man was paroled in September after being sentenced to five years in prison for his seventh DUI. When judges sentence repeat DUI offenders they walk a fine line of getting the drunk driver the help they need and protecting the community. 

"It's not easy," Sioux Falls Judge Brad Zell said. "There is no utopian response, or solution to the human factor. We're not perfect, so what may work on one person may not work on the other," 

Stopping drunk drivers from drinking is the ultimate goal of every sentence, but Judge Zell says it's not as easy as it sounds. 

"It comes down to balancing between, will this truly have an effect on them to rehabilitate them? Are there resources available in the community that we can use to do that?" Zell said.

In 2007, Judge Brad Zell sentenced Jason Larsen-Smith to five years in prison for his seventh DUI. Because of a plea deal it was the maximum sentence Zell could have handed down.

Zell won't comment on the current case, but says deciding to give repeat drunk drivers prison time depends on their earlier convictions.

"If they've had very aggravating circumstances when they got that conviction they are probably going to go to the pen," Zell said.

But Zell says new programs like 24-7, which monitors offenders by requiring them to take a breathalyzer tests twice a day, give judges more options.

"If they can change who they hang out with or where they hang out they have a better chance, better opportunity to be rehabilitated and not re-offend," Zell said.

For some offenders, that works better than spending time behind bars, and keeping them from getting back behind the wheel is what judges strive to do each time they hand down a DUI sentence.

"But it's a constant struggle, not only from the Department of Corrections, but also the judiciary, but also society to try to help folks so they won't re-offend," Zell said.

Zell also says when drunk drivers are sent to the penitentiary they are usually model prisoners because they can't drink, so it's easier for them to get paroled.

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