Low OVI conviction rate not an encouraging sign

The horrific traffic accident that claimed the lives of a Newton Falls couple, Jamie and Emily Danes, has turned the spotlight on the conviction rate of intoxicated drivers in the courts in Mahoning and Trumbull counties.

Why? Because Jamie, 37, and Emily, 29, were killed when their Chevrolet Impala, was struck head on by a 1997 Cadillac driven by 42-year-old Paul Wodianka of Diamond. They were returning home from Niles where they had celebrated their wedding anniversary with dinner and a movie. They are survived by an 8-year-old son.

Wodianka was seriously injured and taken to St. Elizabeth Health Center. The state patrol has taken a blood sample and will determine if he was driving under the influence of alcohol or drugs.

Wodianka has a lengthy drunken driving record, which is why the director of a nonprofit organization that tracks intoxicated drivers has issued a searing indictment of the local courts.

Andrea Pavanti, who heads the Mahoning County TASC (Treatment Alternatives to Street Crime), contended that the two counties have a “bad reputation” in some circles for low OVI conviction rates. She did not specify the circles to a Vindicator reporter. But she did say that lawyers have told her “this same thing doesn’t happen in Columbus or other areas of the state.”

But it is her next statement that should prompt area residents to demand an explanation from those involved in the criminal justice system.

“It’s unique to this area,” Pavanti said of the comparatively low OVI conviction rate in Mahoning and Trumbull counties.

As a result, the director, who has been watching the criminal justice system for a decade, gives most of the courts a failing grade.

A review of the OVI convictions in 2010 in the Valley shows a 52 percent rate in Mahoning County, 65 percent in Trumbull and 83 percent in Columbiana.

“We want high-tier [high concentrations of alcohol] and multiple-DUI offenders to have more accountability for their actions than just three-day DUI schools,” Paventi said.

A 2004 state law requires a mandatory prison sentence for anyone with five or more convictions in a 20-year period. It also establishes increased penalties for OVI offenders who refuse a chemical or Breathalyzer test if they have more than one prior OVI conviction.

Jail space

Paventi acknowledges that in Mahoning County, the lack of jail space may explain the low incarceration rate, but she also points out that the reopening the misdemeanant facility near the county jail is a solution.

Local officials will undoubtedly argue that the lack of funds affects their ability to incarcerate all the offenders who deserve to be behind bars. But Pavanti believes that the law breakers could be required to pay for their stays.

It’s an idea worth considering.

If Mahoning and Trumbull counties have such a poor record of putting away drunken drivers like Wodianka with numerous violations, is it because prosecutors and judges are soft on such crimes?

Now that this issue is front and center because of the deaths of Jamie and Emily Danes and Wodianka’s background, the public should hear from those involved in the criminal justice system.

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