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View from around the state: Put some teeth into OWI penalties

— From the Green Bay Press-Gazette

Maybe the state Senate did us a favor by not taking up three bills that would toughen the penalties for drunken driving in Wisconsin.

Now the Legislature can pass some measures that do more than merely incrementally increase penalties for operating while intoxicated convictions.

In November, the Assembly sent the Senate bills that would require court appearances for first-offense drunken drivers, classify a second offense as a misdemeanor and fourth offense as a felony, and toughen interlock ignition device rules.

The Senate ignored the bills and is now in recess until Jan. 14. When it comes back, it should look at tougher penalties.

The Assembly bills do, in fact, toughen drunken driving laws, but they’re watered down versions. Originally, Assembly bill 68 called for making a first-offense OWI a criminal offense if the driver had a blood-alcohol content of 0.15 percent or more. It also tripled the fine for a second offense OWI from $350 to $1,100 and increased jail time from five days to six months.

Tougher penalties are needed all around.

Wisconsin is the only state where a first-time drunken-driving offense is not considered a criminal act. Yet Wisconsin ranked No. 1 in binge-drinking rates and No. 1 in intensity of drinking in 2011, according to a Health First Wisconsin report.

It’s the same state that saw 2,800 fatal crashes and 40,000 accidents with injuries between 2012 and 2012.

We know all the arguments against tougher penalties: They would cost perhaps hundreds of millions of dollars. They don’t address the societal issues or the repeat offenders. It’s complicated.

We’re tired of the excuses. It’s not complicated. We agree there’s no one magic solution and tougher penalties are only part of the solution, but that shouldn’t be an excuse to do nothing. Tie together efforts to reduce drunken driving and our propensity for overindulging.

Make first-time OWI offenses felonies. Increase the jail times, making them more harsh for each subsequent conviction. Increase the prison time for those who are convicted of homicide by a motor vehicle to life in prison. Triple or quadruple fines related to intoxication. Increase the alcohol tax, which is much lower in Wisconsin than the national average. Use those funds to pay for the added court and jail costs.

If we consider drunken driving to be a serious crime, then the penalties have to follow, otherwise we’re not backing up our tough talk.

What’s the alternative? To get kind of angry and make a fourth-offense OWI a felony? That’s such a minor increase that the Legislature shouldn’t even waste its time or the taxpayers’ money with that. Don’t pass that paltry increase and try to tell us you’re getting tough on drunk drivers. Instead, put some teeth into the laws.

Tougher penalties won’t stop everyone from drinking and driving, and it may not stop the habitual offenders. But they may cause those who have never been convicted of driving drunk from getting their first OWI or drunkenly killing someone else with their vehicle.

To do nothing is a disservice to anyone who’s been the victim of drunken driver.

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