— From HTR Media of Manitowoc
The time has come to admit we are too lax on drunken driving in Wisconsin. That admission alone, however, will do little to alleviate the problem. Action is required.
Wisconsin remains the only state that treats first-offense drunken driving as a civil rather than a criminal offense.
Critics of get-tough legislation say the state cannot afford to crack down any more on drunken driving because of prohibitive prosecution and jail costs. That was again the mantra last week when a pair of Republican lawmakers introduced three bills to toughen penalties for OWI offenses.
Rep. Jim Ott of Mequon and Sen. Alberta Darling of River Hills propose changing third and fourth OWI offenses from misdemeanors to felonies, creating mandatory sentences ranging from six months in jail to three years in prison for injuring someone in a drunken crash, and imposing a mandatory 10-year prison sentence for killing someone while driving drunk.
The state Department of Administration projected changing third and fourth offenses to felonies would drive up prosecutors’ costs by $1.1 million annually. Other aspects of the proposed legislation would add $158 million to $226 million in annual jail and prison operating costs, according to the Department of Corrections.
Ott and Darling counter that the estimates are overblown because they are based on current caseloads, and fewer people would drive drunk with the harsher penalties. They say the cost in lost lives and injuries is too great to allow lax OWI penalties to continue.
State Department of Transportation statistics indicate there were nearly 2,800 fatal crashes and 40,000 injury crashes involving alcohol between 2002 and last year.
We believe that first-time OWI offenses should be treated as misdemeanor crimes in Wisconsin. A criminal record can serve as a deterrent to those who might think about getting behind the wheel drunk a second time. The current penalty is akin to an expensive speeding ticket and does little to dissuade second offenders.
Prosecutors should have discretion on whether to charge repeat offenders with a felony or misdemeanor crime, depending on the severity of the offense, history of the individual involved and other factors. Felony charges should become the norm in most cases when a third or fourth offense is involved because the pattern of dangerous behavior is generally firmly established at that point.
Discretion also should be allowed prosecutors when a death is involved related to driving drunk. Things are not always as they appear on the surface in OWI deaths. Extenuating circumstances can at times be a factor, and attorneys should be allowed to take them into consideration when recommending sentences.
The 10-year minimum proposed in such cases by Ott and Darling, however, is not a bad starting point if the Legislature should decide to impose mandatory sentences.
They have proposed legislation which died in the past. We believe the two lawmakers are onto something, even though their proposals need some tweaking. The Legislature should follow their lead and first consider the human cost in its assessment of the impact of drunken driving, then worry about the dollars.