Over the last few decades, states have imposed tougher punishments on drunk drivers. This Article argues that increasing punishments is counterproductive. If legislatures are seeking to hold guilty offenders accountable and deter drunk driving, they should keep punishments low and instead abolish the right to jury trials. Under the petty offense doctrine, the Supreme Court has authorized states to abolish jury trials when defendants face a maximum sentence of six months’ incarceration. Social science evidence has long demonstrated that judges are more likely to convict than juries, particularly in drunk driving cases. And researchers have found that the certainty of punishment, not the severity of punishment, is the key factor in maximizing deterrence. Thus, by keeping maximum sentences for most drunk drivers at six months or less, states could abolish jury trials, thereby raising conviction rates and improving general deterrence. Additionally, bench trials would be far more efficient because the greater certainty of conviction would give defendants an incentive to plead guilty rather than taking their cases to trial. When trials do occur, they would be much faster because lawyers would not have to select juries or present detailed background testimony to already knowledgeable judges. At present, only a handful of states have eliminated jury trials for drunk drivers. This Article outlines the specific steps that states should take to abolish jury trials and thereby increase convictions, maximize general deterrence, and more efficiently handle one of the most common crimes in the United States.

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2011 University of Illinois Law Review 961-1010

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Criminal Law Commons