HARRISBURG — A Lancaster County-led effort to impose stricter penalties on repeat DUI offenders in Pennsylvania is again making its way through the state Capitol.
West Lampeter Township residents Chris and Susan Demko, whose 18-year-old daughter Meredith was killed by an impaired driver nearly four years ago, led a group of families with similar stories on Tuesday as they lobbied in Harrisburg.
Their group, Pennsylvania Parents Against Impaired Driving, has promoted several bills in recent years to address the annual average of 12,000 DUI crashes resulting in 8,700 injuries and 320 deaths in the state — where DUI laws are routinely rated among the worst in the nation.
“These crashes occur every day. There's 33 in Pennsylvania a day," said Demko, standing alongside 14 other families who all spoke about their children at a press conference.
“You and your loved ones take these roads, just like our kids took these roads,” Demko said. “And the reality of it is there's far too many crashes and it could happen to any one of us."
Two years ago, the Demkos' efforts culminated in a law that requires most first-time offenders to have ignition interlock devices installed in their vehicles. The law went into effect last summer.
Now, they're targeting repeat offenders, who cause about 40 percent of all DUI-related crashes, according to the group.
Senate Bill 961 — sponsored primarily by Republican state Sens. John Rafferty, of Montgomery County, and Scott Martin, of Martic Township — takes multiple steps towards that goal.
Pennsylvania is one of only four states that doesn't have a felony charge for someone with multiple DUIs. The proposed bill would make a fourth DUI a felony.
Third-time offenders would face the felony charge if all three charges were within 10 years and if they had a 0.16 or higher blood-alcohol concentration on the third offense.
Demko said both scenarios would apply to hundreds of cases annually.
The bill would also increase the minimum sentences for repeat DUI offenders who cause fatal crashes — from a minimum three-year sentence to a five-year minimum if the person had one prior DUI, and to a seven-year minimum if the person had two or more previous offenses.
The bill would additionally increase penalties for people who continue to drive on suspended licenses after a DUI conviction.
All the components are parts of previous bills from Martin and state Rep. Keith Greiner, R-Upper Leacock, who has led the efforts in the House.
“This is a real threat to our communities and to our families," Martin said in an emotional speech in which he thanked the families for their advocacy.
The comprehensive bill passed the Senate, 45-4, last month and now awaits a vote in the House Judiciary Committee.
Chris Demko said the bill has lagged in previous years, in part, because of the “complex" nature of changing the law, shifting priorities in Harrisburg and those who are hesitant about policies that put more people convicted of drug-related offenses in prison.
Lancaster County District Attorney Craig Stedman, who has lobbied alongside Demko for years and was at the Capitol again Tuesday, said some law enforcement jurisdictions prioritize speeding up DUI cases, which leads to more lenient plea deals.
“There is a perception in our society that's ‘What's the big deal? It's just a DUI,'" Stedman said.
The parents who make up the Demkos’ group are countering that argument every chance they get.
“It's not victimless and it's not an accident," said Jim Pasqualini, whose son Jim was paralyzed and later died because he was hit by a drunk driver while walking near their home in Butler County
“These are repeat offenders. This is isn't somebody who has an accident by drinking one too many beers. This law puts people in jail who need to be in jail.”