With over 1.4 million drivers arrested for drunken driving every year, it goes without saying that each state in the nation seeks to address the problem. But as a recent article in USA Today pointed out, there is a good deal of variability and inconsistency among the states in terms of the actual penalties for a first DUI offense.

As Alex R. Piquero-a criminology professor at the University of Texas-Dallas who has studied drunk driving for over 20 years-put it, “There are no set guidelines on this. There’s no national standard on this. There is a lot of discretion.” Different courts use different approaches to the problem-such as fines, probation, education classes and jail time-and the court the offender ends up can make a difference in how the case is dealt with.

For instance, some states-like Alaska, Tennessee, and Georgia-impose mandatory jail time for first time offenders, for as much as several days. In California and Connecticut, for instance, jail time is not mandatory, but it Wisconsin, a first DUI conviction isn’t even considered a crime, but rather a civil infraction, the penalty for which is a ticket.

According to national research, throwing first time DUI offenders in jail isn’t a particularly effective approach. Research suggests that jail time is only effective where it is used to compel the offender to obey orders for probation, treatment, community service, and alcohol testing.

Sentencing guidelines released by the federal highway officials and the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism in 2006 support that point, saying that the evidence shows that jail terms are very expensive no more effective in reducing recidivism than other approaches. Instead, the manual encourages ignition interlock devices.

Louisiana law imposes a mandatory sentence of two days jail time for a first time DUI offender, but community service may be imposed in lieu of incarceration.

Source: USA Today, “Drunken driving penalties could depend on your location,” Emily Brown, 28 July 2011.