Kansas State Rep. Russ Jennings called it the most emotional committee hearing he’d experienced as a lawmaker.
Testimony from the parents of a young woman killed in a May 2016 crash caused by a drunken driver — a repeat offender — was heartbreaking, Jennings recalled, and helped motivate the Kansas House to forward legislation designed to toughen sanctions for habitual violators convicted of involuntary manslaughter or aggravated battery in DUI-related crashes.
Caitlin Vogel, a 24-year-old who worked with special needs children in the Olathe school district, was killed when the intoxicated driver ran a stop sign and slammed into her vehicle in Johnson County.
James McAllister, 29, already had a pair of DUI convictions. He was ordered to use an ignition interlock device, a breath analyzer that registers the driver’s blood-alcohol content, but dodged the requirement by borrowing another vehicle.
McAllister was sentenced in October 2017 to nine years in prison for the crash that killed Vogel. He also received credit for more than a year served.
The sentence was far too lenient for someone with multiple DUI convictions who chose to avoid a required safety device and operate a vehicle while under the influence.
Motivated by testimony from Vogel’s parents, Jennings and others in the Kansas House moved to keep those offenders off the street for longer periods of time. To be known as Caitlin’s Law, the bill calls for sentencing guidelines that would have doubled the prison term McAllister received.
Jennings, a Lakin Republican and chairman of the House Corrections and Juvenile Justice Committee, was a sponsor of the bill that passed the House in a unanimous vote. The Kansas Senate should give it the same endorsement.
Lawmakers also should be mindful of other possible strategies. While there’s no doubt policy changes over the years have prevented many drunken driving-related deaths nationwide, tougher penalties aren’t the only needed course of action.
Stepped-up public awareness campaigns and ample support for front-line law-enforcement initiatives always must be part of a more holistic approach.
A multifaceted attack stands to lessen the likelihood of tragedies such as the one that inspired the bill now making its way through the Kansas Legislature.