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Lawmakers Push to Strengthen Drunken Driving Laws

It’s not uncommon to tune into the news and learn of another drunken driving arrest or accident. Oftentimes, the perpetrators have numerous offenses.

Back in 2009, Wisconsin lawmakers passed legislation that was supposed to require jail time for drunken drivers who injure others. Republican Rep. Jim Ott says unfortunately, the wording of the law did not match supporters’ intentions. So he’s introduced a new version.

“What this portion of the bill does is simply change the word may to the word shall so that it’s very definitive that we do intend a 30 day sentence mandatory for injury caused by OWI,” Ott says.  

Ott’s plan would similarly strengthen the language when it comes to repeat offenders.

“So that the three year confinement and the three year extended supervision for seventh, eighth and ninth OWI is mandatory. The same language is applied to 10 and above OWI’s, so that those sentences are clearly mandatory,” Ott says.

While lawmakers testifying on the bill agree drunken driving is a major problem in Wisconsin, not everyone views mandatory sentencing as the solution.

“Part of the nature of drunk driving includes the drunk part.”

That’s Democratic Rep. Evan Goyke of Milwaukee.

And so in its very nature, the deterrent effect of stiff criminal penalties applies less because at the moment of the criminal conduct, the person is intoxicated, and not thinking the way a normal person would think,” Goyke says.

Goyke says he supports the legislation, but also urges the state to consider treatment.

David Callender, of the Wisconsin Counties Association, hopes lawmakers compute the cost of jailing more people.

“Given the financial constraints that counties must operate under right now, whether it’s the levy limits or the reductions that we’ve seen in state funding, we want to make sure that the legislature is aware that every time that you increase or that you provide for mandatory jail time, there are fiscal consequences for Wisconsin’s counties,” Callender says.

Local property taxpayers fund the jails.

Despite a potential increase in cost, Republican Rep. Samantha Kerkman of Kenosha County believes the state should stiffen penalties.

“Even in the (most minor) of car accidents if there is alcohol involved there should be a mandatory minimum for a person to sit there in jail and think about what they’ve done,” Kerkman says.

According to the Department of Transportation, Milwaukee County, in 2011, reported 720 accidents involving alcohol. Last year’s figures are not yet available.

LaToya was a reporter with WUWM from 2006 to 2021.