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Six Bills Would Toughen Wisconsin's Drunk Driving Laws


Two GOP lawmakers say the state’s OWI statutes are weaker than those in the rest of the nation.

State Sen. Alberta Darling of River Hills and Mequon Rep. Jim Ott say people who drive while intoxicated have done it dozens of times, and will continue doing so.

Thee lawmakers have introduced six bills that would strengthen the state’s laws. Three of the bills were discussed at an Assembly committee meeting Thursday.

Darling told the panel that Wisconsin has a drunken driving problem, in part, because the laws enable it.

“There are lots of do-overs. Until you get to a felony, many of our offenders don’t think it’s a real problem because our policies say, ‘you know what, it’s not that serious. The first offense is like a parking ticket,’” Darling said.

Darling and Assemblyman Ott want a mandatory 10 year prison term, for drunken drivers who kill someone. Another bill would make the third OWI conviction a felony.

Four years ago, Paul Jenkins of Mequon lost his pregnant daughter and his 10-year-old granddaughter, when a repeat offender crushed their car. Jenkins told the committee that he’s frustrated.

“I find it very difficult to understand why our Wisconsin legislature cannot get done what 49 other states are doing,” Jenkins said.

Most people who testified favor the bills. However, a few shared concerns. David Callender is with the Wisconsin Counties Association. He says he opposes the plan requiring six-month jail terms for intoxicated drivers who cause injury.

“When someone is in jail, it costs the county and county taxpayers $50 a day for that person. When we’re talking about six months in jail, we’re talking about a mandatory cost of $9,000. These are significant costs. The bill does not provide any funding for these costs,” Callender said.

While the committee hearing focused on provisions in the three bills, Ronald Dague wishes they contained more. Dague is a Milwaukee County prosecutor. He says Wisconsin should establish sobriety checkpoints.

“It is not the most effective way to get a lot of arrests, but it’s shown to be one of the strongest deterrent effects for people drinking impaired, because it encourages them to think about their decision to drive before they go out to the bar,” Dague says.

The committee did not vote on the proposals. It will wait for an upcoming hearing on three more bills. One would expand Wisconsin’s treatment courts, which address addictions.

Ann-Elise is WUWM's news director.