AUGUSTA – Mark D. LeClair, 46, of Augusta, was arrested Tuesday on a charge of operating under the influence of alcohol. Again. It was the eighth time he has been arrested on a drunken-driving charge, said Kennebec County District Attorney Everet Fowle.

When arrested, police discovered LeClair was wanted for not showing up for his sentencing hearing for his last drunk-driving conviction, in Penobscot County. “Mr. LeClair illustrates the need for tightening up,” Fowle said.

Meanwhile Daniel Asselin, 38, now of Bangor, awaits sentencing for drunken driving, again. When arrested last year in Bangor, his blood-alcohol level was .29, nearly four times the legal limit of .08. In 1996 Asselin was driving drunk when he struck and killed Mark Blanchette, 18, of Lewiston, on Webster Street in Lewiston. Asselin, then of Lewiston, was sentenced to four years in prison. Before that incident, Asselin had been forbidden to drive for a total of nine years for violations including habitual offender and multiple drunken-driving convictions.

The problem of repeat OUI offenders “is one of the biggest criminal justice problems the state has,” Fowle said. Like a lot of prosecutors, he’s fed up with “people who have made drinking and driving a career. They’re the ones who kill people.”

During the last 10 years, between 9,022 and 11,489 people have been arrested in Maine annually on charges of drunken driving, according to statistics provided by Public Safety Commissioner Michael Cantara. Between 8 and 10 percent of those have three or more OUI convictions, Fowle said.

The repeat offenders are mostly alcoholics, Cantara said. Keeping them off the road isn’t easy. Some experts say society has more work to do with attitudes. Others, like Michelle Warneke, president of the Maine chapter of Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD), want harsher punishment.

“These people don’t care, so what would make them care? Higher fines, longer incarcerations” and tougher laws, Warneke said. For instance, if someone who killed a person while driving drunk is later arrested for a second OUI, a six-month jail sentence is too soft, she said.

And often, Warneke complained, offenders like the drunken driver who killed her sister lose their license while in jail. “Big deal!” she said, saying suspensions should start when the offenders get out.

Prosecutors, judges and police are doing their best, but the laws are lenient for repeat offenders, she said. “Their hands are tied.”

Sen. Bill Diamond, D-Windham, and Sen. Elizabeth Libby, D-Vassalboro, agree. Libby sponsored a bill that gets tougher on repeat drunken drivers. Beginning Sept. 17, anyone convicted of a third OUI will face felony charges, instead of misdemeanor. That will mean longer jail sentences, higher fines and longer probations. Fowle asked Mitchell to sponsor the bill, saying it was wrong that a third offense was not an automatic felony.

As the co-chair of the Legislature’s Criminal Justice committee, Diamond said the problem of repeat offenders has troubled him since he was secretary of state. Taking licenses away doesn’t work, the holders drive anyway, he said. Sending chronic drunken drivers to jail longer is the only way to get their attention, Diamond said. “They have to be taken off the street.”

Others said punishment is only part of the answer. Androscoggin County District Attorney Norman R. Croteau said offenders must understand that even though they have a disease, it is their fault for deciding to drive after drinking. More work must be done to ensure they get the substance abuse treatment ordered by the courts. But probation officers are already stretched thin, Croteau acknowledged.

Cantara and Waldo County Assistant District Attorney Eric Walker said there is no silver bullet. A big part of the solution is proper punishment and enforcement of existing laws, plus more public education.

“Mothers Against Drunk Driving has made a difference,” Walker said. “The ‘Friends Don’t Let Friends Drive Drunk’ campaign stopped a lot more than we’ll ever know. It has to be a societal change.”

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