A law is a law, and two people charged with the same offense should reasonably expect the same result. But that’s not how it works in Maine when it comes to drunken driving.

According to a recent report by the Maine Sunday Telegram, people charged with operating under the influence in Aroostook County are almost twice as likely to be convicted as those charged in York County, with 10-year average conviction rates of 74 percent and 37 percent respectively. And the conviction rate in Cumberland County is 47 percent, just over half that of Hancock and Penobscot counties, which lead the state with a conviction rate on OUI charges of 83 percent.

It’s clear that the higher-volume prosecutors’ offices are prioritizing their caseloads and allowing some of the defendants to plead down to lesser charges.

This may be a responsible use of resources by district attorneys who have more cases – including assaults, robberies and drug crimes – than they can handle. But it’s still not fair for two drivers with the same blood alcohol content to end up with different penalties simply because they come from different parts of the state.

There are ways to make the system more equitable, each with its own problems.

A lighter sentence for first-time drunk drivers could get more guilty pleas in the high-volume districts, but could also send the wrong message to those who might think the state is growing more tolerant of drinking and driving.

The state could boost the budgets of the busiest district attorney’s offices, but coming up with more state money is never easy.

Some states have experimented with having police officers act as prosecutors in OUI cases, but that just shifts the resource problem from the DA’s office to the police department.

Even with those problems, however, the Legislature should address this situation. Expectations for prosecution and conviction should not vary this much among the state’s 16 counties.

Either there is one law for the whole state or there isn’t, and the consequence for breaking it should be the same no matter where you get caught.


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