By Todd Richmond
MADISON, Wis. (AP) — Wisconsin legislators completed their push to get tougher on drunken drivers, passing a bill early Wednesday morning that would create harsher sentences for repeat offenders through the Assembly and on to Gov. Scott Walker.
The 95-1 vote came around 1:30 a.m., near the end of a marathon floor session that began at 3 p.m. Tuesday. The Assembly passed scores of bills as lawmakers rushed to get their projects a vote before the chamber wraps up its work for the two-year legislative session Thursday.
The proposal would make a fourth drunken driving offense a felony regardless of when the charge is filed. Currently, a fourth offense is a felony only if committed within five years of a third.
The legislation also would increase the maximum prison sentence for fifth and sixth offenses from three years to five. Maximum sentences for seventh, eighth and ninth offenses would increase from five years to seven and a half. The maximum sentence for a 10th or subsequent offense would rise from seven and a half years to a decade.
“One thing we can all agree on is drunken driving continues to be a serious problem here in Wisconsin,” said the bill’s chief author, Rep. Jim Ott, R-Mequon. “We’re not going to solve drunken driving by passing tougher laws, but it is part of the solution.”
Drunken driving has plagued Wisconsin for decades. The state Department of Transportation has tracked more than 4,000 alcohol-related crashes every year from 2012 through 2015. According to preliminary agency data, 101 people died in alcohol-related crashes last year alone.
The state’s drunken driving laws remain notoriously lax; Wisconsin is the only state where a first offense is treated not as a criminal offense but a civil violation akin to a speeding ticket. Prohibitive cost estimates and resistance from powerful Tavern League lobbyists have stalled attempts to impose tougher penalties.
Ott has been pushing for years for a crackdown, trying to fulfill a promise he made to Judy Jenkins, a constituent who lost her pregnant daughter and 10-year-old granddaughter to a drunken driver in 2008.
The penalty bill finally gained traction this session. The Tavern League, the state prosecutors and police chief associations and the Wisconsin Medical Society all have registered in support of the tougher penalties, with no groups opposing the measure.
The state Senate approved the bill last month on a voice vote, a procedure reserved for non-controversial bills. Rep. Fred Kessler, D-Milwaukee, was the lone dissenter in the Assembly. He didn’t make any remarks on the floor about the bill before the vote.
The bill’s potential price tag could be high. The Department of Corrections, for example, estimated it may have to spend as much as $129 million annually as well as another $157 million to build a dozen drug abuse centers to accommodate additional repeat offenders.
Ott contends those estimates are exaggerated. Stiffer penalties will deter would-be repeat offenders, resulting in fewer inmates entering the system.
The Assembly began its Tuesday session by passing on a voice vote with no debate another Ott bill that would require first-time offenders to appear in court. Anyone who fails to appear would face a $300 surcharge and be subject to arrest. The measure goes next to the Senate.
WisDOT recorded 17,675 first-time offenses in Wisconsin in 2014.