January 8, 2012

KEVIN COFFAY was incoherently drunk, stumbling into walls at a late-night party in Montgomery County on May 15, when four friends took him up on the offer of a ride. Three would not survive what law enforcement officials described as a horrific, high-speed crash that flipped and crushed the vehicle and virtually sheered off its right side.

Mr. Coffay, 20, was likely saved by an air bag; he fled the crash and, according to court documents, evaded police officers for some three hours as he dodged through woods near Olney. Mr. Coffay pleaded guilty to three counts of vehicular manslaughter and one of failing to remain at the scene of the crash. On Thursday, he was sentenced to 40 years behind bars; all but 20 were suspended.

This case has hit a nerve. Law enforcement officials believe more people attended the Coffay sentencing hearing than showed up on any given day of the trial of sniper John Allen Muhammad or of the Lululemon murder prosecution.

Despite years of public-service announcements, driver’s education classes, and community and law enforcement campaigns regarding drunk driving, more still needs to be done to thwart these preventable tragedies. The criminal justice system is an important tool in that quest.

Mr. Coffay’s lawyers argued for a prison term of no more than 18 months. The judge rightly rejected that as too lenient — a penalty that would have communicated crass indifference to the deaths of three young people. It also would not have been reasonable in light of Mr. Coffay’s previous run-ins with the law, including a 2010 episode in which law enforcement officials suspected he was intoxicated when he impaled his car on a brick mailbox. The car was driverless when police arrived; Mr. Coffay apparently left the scene and walked to his home, which was not far away.

But did the judge go too far in the other direction by accepting prosecutors’ recommendations that Mr. Coffay be hit with 10 years for every count to which he pleaded guilty?

In reality, Mr. Coffay could be released on parole in as little as five years. Had the judge imposed a lesser sentence, his chances of freedom would have arrived even sooner. Sentences should be fair and tailored to the particulars of a case. But they do not merely serve to punish defendants; they are also tools for deterrence.

The Post’s Mary Pat Flaherty reported that before sentencing Mr. Coffay, Circuit Judge Theresa M. Adams implored the packed courtroom to end “the culture of recklessness.” The judge’s sentence sent an appropriate message that there will be a steep price to pay when such recklessness results in grave harm to others.