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OWI fines hefty, but deterrence effect debated

OSHKOSH, Wis. (AP) — The fine for a first drunken-driving offense, including court costs and surcharges, can be as high as $1,000 in places like Winnebago County. But industry experts are questioning whether such heavy fines serve as effective deterrents.

The actual fine for a charge of operating while intoxicated ranges from $150 to $300, but court costs can add $600 to $700, Northwestern Media reported. The amounts, which are higher for subsequent offenses, can catch defendants off guard.

“I give someone a $300 fine, and my bailiff shows them the paperwork and it shows them it’s $1,200,” Winnebago County Circuit Court Judge Scott Woldt said. “It’s a jaw-dropping experience for the defendant.”

While the total bill can be hefty, some observers think there are better ways to deter drunken driving. Nina Emerson, a former director of the Resource Center for Impaired Driving at the University of Wisconsin Law School, said a large fine is a “hollow threat.” Measures such as sobriety checkpoints do more to get a driver’s attention, she said.

“What really gets people’s attention is the increased fear of apprehension,” she said. “That’s how you change people’s behavior.”

Across the state, roughly 63 percent of the 16,619 drunken-driving convictions in 2012 were for first-time offenses, according to the Wisconsin Department of Transportation. Second offenses comprised 21 percent of convictions, and each subsequent offense fell by roughly half.

Those numbers suggest that the penalties, including the high fines, are working, Republican state Rep. Jim Ott said.

“There’s something about that experience of being caught the first time,” the Mequon lawmaker said. “Something makes people change their behavior, and I think certainly the fine is part of it.”

Emerson said the biggest issue is that people who get behind the wheel after drinking aren’t thinking about the possibilities of high fines or jail time. Too many believe they won’t get caught, and if they don’t feel risk they won’t be worried about consequences, she said.

She suggested options such as increased officer patrols and more traffic checkpoints. She said the current legislative penalties of increasing fines and jail penalties are tired, less effective solutions.

Democratic state Rep. Jon Richards of Milwaukee agreed that legislators should consider multiple options, such as ignition-interlock devices and treatment for alcoholic addiction. But he agreed with Ott that fines and penalties play an important role in the process.

“When we’re talking about drunk driving, we’re talking about preventing deaths,” he said. “I think we need to use every tool available.”

Information from: Oshkosh Northwestern Media, http://www.thenorthwestern.com

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