Tennessee Hopes Shame Will Help Combat Drunk Driving

A new Tennessee law is enlisting the power of shame to discourage drunken driving — even though law enforcement, the governor and various experts are calling it an expensive and bad idea.

Starting Jan. 1, convicted drunken drivers are required to do 24 hours of roadside cleanup while wearing orange vests emblazoned with the phrase "I am a Drunk Driver."

The new law is aimed at first-time offenders, says one of its sponsors, state Rep. Charles Curtiss.

"You cause them to go out and pick up trash in front of their friends and neighbors, the embarrassment is going to be such that they're never going to want to go through that again," Curtiss said. "Hopefully you can turn them around to never become a second-time offender."

But shaming offenders without more meaningful treatment programs could have the opposite effect, said Jacqueline Helfgott, chairwoman of the criminal justice department at Seattle University.

"If I'm forced to wear a sign saying that I'm a drunk driver, then I'm going to feel worse and worse about myself and I may drink more and more because I feel shunned," she said.

Jeanne Mejeur, a research manager at the National Conference of State Legislatures in Denver, said Tennessee's law "is pretty much a unique program nationally."

Ohio requires yellow license plates with red letters for some convicted drunken drivers, and other states use less obvious coding on tags to alert police about DUI convictions. But those measures, like sex offender registries, are targeted more at public safety than shaming the individual, Mejeur said. One Arizona county attorney posts the names and faces of drunken drivers on a Web site, but that isn't mandated by state law.

Tennessee offenders will have to spend at least one day in jail, followed by three eight-hour cleanup shifts. The previous minimum sentence for driving under the influence was 48 hours in jail.

The bill becomes law Sunday without Gov. Phil Bredesen's signature.

"Although I am generally supportive of innovative forms of punishment to address this issue, I am concerned about the possibility of reduced jail time for DUI offenders," Bredesen wrote in a letter to legislative leaders.

That sentiment is echoed by the state chapter of Mothers Against Drunk Driving.

"The best deterrent to drunk driving is jail time, not community service," said Laura Dial, Tennessee's MADD director.

The Tennessee Sheriffs' Association is concerned that the law will increase counties' costs and create record-keeping headaches.

"It basically dumps everything on the county, and there's no funding for it whatsoever," said Dyer County Sheriff Jeff Holt, chairman of the association's legislative committee.

Sheriffs are required to schedule the offenders' three shifts within 30 days, and at times that won't prevent them from being at their jobs. "Meaning it's probably going to be on weekends, which means overtime for us," Holt said.

Lawmakers felt that having offenders pick up trash would save the cost of keeping them behind bars, Curtiss said.

But Davidson County Sheriff Daron Hall, whose agency runs the 690-inmate Metro Jail in Nashville, said annual costs could reach $200,000 for his county and $2 million statewide under the new law.

Hall also disagrees with the idea of trying to shame offenders into not driving drunk again, instead of treating them.

"At the end of the weekend we're going to have a person who has picked up a lot of litter, but is still addicted to alcohol," he said.