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State’s judges noncompliant with OWI penalties (UPDATE)

MARSHFIELD, Wis. (AP) — Some chronic drunken drivers in Wisconsin spend little time behind bars on felony charges due to lenient sentencing, according to a Gannett Wisconsin Media review.

There have been at least a dozen cases across the state where judges imposed sentences below statutory minimums, News-Herald Media reported. Several of the sentences were the result of a loophole created by a vaguely worded statute. Others were caused by judges who opted to disregard what lawmakers deem as mandatory.

Ben Kempinen, a professor at the University of Wisconsin Law School, said he was surprised that there have been multiple cases of judges who don’t follow the requirement.

“If (legislators) say you have to give the guy at least a year and (judges) are not doing it, then they’re not complying with the limits on their power,” Kempinen said.

The investigation determined some judges didn’t order probation for OWI offenders upon their release from jail, while others lessened jail time by allowing offenders to serve other sentences simultaneously. One of the 900 cases analyzed by the investigative team involved a Green Bay man who’s been convicted of seven drunken driving offenses.

Instead of sentencing Corey Dekeyser to at least three years in prison, as mandated by state law, Brown County Judge Donald Zuidmulder handed down a two-year sentence and made him eligible for an early release program. Dekeyser ultimately spent only nine months in jail.

The investigation discovered Zuidmulder also sentenced another offender to two years in prison, when he or she should’ve received three years. Zuidmulder said he was following the recommendation of prosecutors in both cases. He said he believes statutory minimums are a factor judges should consider, but he doesn’t consider them mandatory.

“I think the Legislature has a right to express their opinion that these are mandatory, in their opinion this is the sentence that should be imposed, but I don’t think I’m a computer, I don’t think I’m a robot. I try to listen to what everybody has to tell me,” Zuidmulder said. “I do respect that and probably follow it 99 percent of the time or 98 percent of the time.”

Republican state Rep. Jim Ott, who has repeatedly pushed for stricter penalties for OWI offenders, disagrees with Zuidmulder’s outlook.

“As a legislator we expect the judges to follow the law,” Ott said. “I don’t know how you can interpret ‘shall’ as meaning anything but ‘you must.’ The clear language, the intent of the Legislature is what the judge should be doing in court.”

Information from: News-Herald Media,

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