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Tennessee Rep. Mark Hall on new bill that would make drunk drivers pay child support

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Every day in the United States, about 28 people are killed in drunk driving crashes. The state of Tennessee hopes that a new set of consequences for drunk drivers might help lower that number. A bill is headed to the governor's desk which would require drunk drivers to pay child support if they are responsible for the death of a parent of a minor. We wanted to know more about how this would work, so we've called state Representative Mark Hall - he's a Republican - to tell us more. Representative Hall introduced the bill in the Tennessee House, where it passed unanimously, and he is with us now. Representative Hall, thanks so much for joining us.

MARK HALL: Hey, thanks for having me today.

MARTIN: How did the idea for this come about? Was it one particular event, or was it some series of events? I do understand that there is a grandmother in Missouri who's been advocating for this after her son and his partner and one of their children was killed in a crash and leaving behind two of their children whom she is now raising. So tell me how this came to your attention.

HALL: Right. A relative of the victim lives in my district. And she had reached out to me and, of course, a constituent of mine and asked me if I would, you know, take a second look at this or take a hard look at it to see if this is something that is doable. I met with legal to make sure that it was sort of drafted in a nice, neat little clean package. And so as it started going through the committee process, it really started to build momentum. And I knew that we had something special here.

MARTIN: So there are other states looking to implement similar bills, but it's my understanding it looks as though Tennessee is going to be the first to get it done. What made you want to be the person to carry this forward?

HALL: Fourteen other states have taken a step in this direction, and a few have sort of dipped their toe in the water. But in the state of Tennessee, if you were to get a drunk - if you were to be driving intoxicated today, if you were to get a DUI, there would only be a 17% chance of you ever getting a second DUI. But if you had a second, you would have a 70% chance of getting a third. So it was very important that I utilized every tool in the toolbox to combat drinking and driving.

MARTIN: How is the amount of child support calculated? Like, how would this actually work?

HALL: Well, that's a great question. I left the bill open-ended on purpose for the simple fact that I wanted to sort of take the shackles off the DA and the judges and allow them to use their own discretion when addressing these issues. It's my belief that in the future that there will be a formula in place, almost like a divorce settlement agreement, where the payment is based on the income of the convicted drunk driver and the needs of the child.

MARTIN: So forgive me for being sort of very clear about this, but if a person who's impaired by alcohol kills somebody who doesn't have children but who has a spouse, that's not relevant. There's no spousal support or alimony involved. It's strictly intended to pay for the future support, I assume, of minor children. Would that be accurate?

HALL: Yes, ma'am. It is - it's - 100% goes to child support until the child reaches the age of 18.

MARTIN: So I assume the idea is that this would be a deterrent for people to think twice before they get behind the wheel if they have been drinking. And I think, you know, you've been in public life for a while, so I think you were around - there's been a big pivot in our attitude about this. I mean, I can - I remember when I first got into this field, in journalism, I remember there was actually a fairly lenient attitude toward alcohol-impaired driving. I mean, people tended to be sympathetic. Like, if something happened, they'd be like, oh, well, the driver has to live with this for the rest of his or her life, you know? And then people, because of advocacy by groups like Mothers Against Drunk Driving, a lot - you know, the criminal justice system got much more tough about it, in part thinking that, you know, if there were consequences, if there were stiffer consequences - the blood alcohol limit got lowered substantially in most places. The penalties got higher. But then it seems like there's kind of been another shift where people are wondering whether criminal justice is the right response for addiction-driven behaviors, right? So what are your thoughts about that? And did you think about that while you were crafting this? What were your thoughts about that?

HALL: Well, there's two things that you - that I wanted to sort of - to address. First of all, I think you certainly want to get their attention on those that get behind the wheel while they're drinking and driving. And that was part of it. But the main motivation was I wanted to make sure that the children were in as much of a healthy financial - healthy and robust financial position if their parent of a minor child got - was killed at the hands of a drunk driver.

MARTIN: But what convinces you that this is the kind of thing that will get a person's attention who's an addict? That's my question, because the reason why I say that there's been a rethinking of some of these approaches is that some people argue that an addict, somebody who's addicted to whatever - alcohol, whether it's opioids or whatever - isn't making those kinds of calculations. So I'm just wondering, what persuades you that this would be a deterrent?

HALL: It's basically what we're doing today. It is - it's getting the message out. And I know that even though 14 other states have taken a step in this direction, the - this law has spread like wildfire across the great state of Tennessee. It has hit every media source. I've had four other states that's reached out to me. North Carolina, Wisconsin, Georgia - all of them have reached out to me, and they want the language of this law. So that tells me one thing, is that it's doing what it's supposed to do and that it's building momentum and it's getting the message out. And I'm anticipating it to be some form of this law, even though it may be watered down in some states. But I'm anticipating this law to be in every state in the U.S. And it started right here in the great state of Tennessee.

MARTIN: So before we let you go, in 2021, there were 272 alcohol-impaired driving fatalities in Tennessee. The same year, though, there were 707 deaths from gun violence, and there were more than 1,100 injuries from gun violence. Have you considered a bill that would impose similar consequences for other crimes that result in the death of a parent? I mean, given that some of these deaths are surely self-harm, but some of these deaths are surely the result of negligence - people leaving their guns unattended, people perhaps leaving their gun unlocked, things of that sort. Did you consider that?

HALL: Great question. And I've had that question asked to me several different times, whether - a lot of those that are convicted of violent crimes, intentional violent crimes, of course, serves more time. And the payment of the child support starts one year after the inmate is released from incarceration. So a lot of the offenders that are violent and commit a crime with a weapon, of course, they serve more time than a drunk driver. So, you know, I don't know if - I'm not so sure if the needle moves in a positive direction as far as having the children with someone that is incarcerated that long. So that's something that we're going to take a hard look at. That's something that we've been kicking around and bringing in data and also looking at other states and seeing how other states do the same thing. So that's a great question. That is something that we're taking a hard look at.

MARTIN: That is Tennessee state Representative Mark Hall. Representative Hall, thank you so much for speaking with us today.

HALL: Hey, thank you for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.