Repeat drunken drivers will face more time behind bars in Wisconsin starting New Year’s Day under a law the state Legislature passed overwhelmingly nearly a year ago.
The new law doesn’t make the first offense a criminal violation, leaving Wisconsin as the only state that treats a first offense as a civil violation. Advocates for sober driving say lawmakers need to go further in the upcoming session, starting by expanding ignition interlock use.
“(The new penalties are) just closing some loopholes that currently exist,” said Frank Harris, state government affairs director for Mothers Against Drunk Driving. “By the time someone’s a repeat offender prosecutors need every tool in the tool box.”
The new law, sponsored by Rep. Jim Ott, a Mequon Republican, makes a fourth drunken driving offense a felony punishable by up to six years in prison regardless of when it’s committed. Right now a fourth offense is a felony only if it’s committed within five years of a third offense.
The law also increases the maximum sentence for fifth and sixth offenses from three years to five. Maximum sentences for seventh, eighth and ninth offenses will increase from five years to seven years and six months. The maximum sentence for a 10th or subsequent offense will increase from seven years and six months to a decade in prison. The new penalties will go into effect Jan. 1.
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. Eighty-five people died in alcohol-related crashes last year, according to the state agency’s data.
The state’s drunken driving laws have been notoriously lax. Wisconsin is the only state where a first offense is treated similar to a speeding ticket. The offender can lose a driver’s license but doesn’t face any jail time and can obtain occupational licenses allowing travel to certain destinations during certain hours.
Prohibitive cost estimates and resistance from powerful Tavern League lobbyists have scuttled attempts to create harsher penalties. The Department of Corrections, for example, projects it may have to spend as much as $129 million annually as well as another $157 million to construct a dozen drug abuse centers to accommodate the additional offenders under the new law.
Still, sober driving advocates seem to be gaining some momentum. Ott has insisted the cost estimates are exaggerated and the Tavern League registered in support of the new law. The Senate passed the measure in January on a voice vote, a procedure reserved for non-controversial legislation, and the Assembly passed it 95-1 in February.
MADD’s Harris wants more. He wants to see Sen. Van Wanggard, a Racine Republican, reintroduce a bill that would allow first-time offenders to obtain a special license allowing them to drive wherever they wish if they install ignition interlock devices on their vehicles.
The devices work like breathalyzers. The driver blows into it and if his or her breath exceeds a certain alcohol content the vehicle won’t start. Under the bill, a license holder who drives a vehicle without such a device could face six months behind bars.
A fiscal estimate attached to the bill found fees for the new licenses would generate about $1.1 million annually but the measure never got a floor vote last session.
Harris said 28 other states already permit such a practice, which he called “an in-car probation officer.”
Wanggard said Tuesday he’ll bring the bill back this session, adding that the measure will encourage people to stay sober. He said he also plans to bring back a proposal to revoke a person’s license permanently if he or she has five or more operating while intoxicated offenses.
Ott, meanwhile, plans to reintroduce bills that would require a minimum 18-month prison sentence for fifth and sixth offenses and a mandatory seven-year sentence for committing a homicide while driving drunk.
“By working to close loopholes and strengthen sentencing,” Ott spokesman Ryan Augustyn said in a statement, “we send the message that OWI is a serious offense with potentially life-changing consequences.”
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