Two members of the Wisconsin legislature have moved to introduce sweeping legislation that would drastically stiffen penalties for those accused of drunk driving in the state. The three new measures would include far tougher penalties for those convicted of drunk driving in a state that has long been known for its lax laws.
State Representative Jim Ott and State Senator Alberta Darling worked together to craft three new pieces of legislation, which were presented to House and Senate Judiciary Committees earlier this week. The first bill would change third and fourth drunk driving incidents from misdemeanors into felonies. The second bill would create mandatory incarceration for those who injure others during a drunk driving accident, with sentencing ranging between six months and three years. The final measure would create a mandatory ten-year prison term for anyone responsible for killing someone else in a drunk driving accident.
Ott and Darling saying the time has come for Wisconsin to send a message to drunk drivers that the behavior will no longer be tolerated. They say Wisconsin has long had a reputation for lax punishment of drunk drivers and they are aiming to change that perception. As evidence of its more laid back approach to DUIs, Wisconsin is currently the only state in the country where a first time DUI offense is not treated as a crime, but instead a civil violation much like speeding tickets.
Though the Wisconsin chapter of MADD has come out in support of the measures, other groups have voiced their concern. Even prosecutors and correctional officers have expressed concern about the sweeping changes, saying they will cost the state hundreds of millions of dollars a year, an expense that most agencies cannot afford.
For one thing, state officials have said that the cost of the increased penalties will reach over $1 million a year for prosecutors who will have to devote more time and resources to prosecuting drunk drivers. This pales in comparison to the amount that will need to be spent by the Department of Corrections, which estimates the changes could cost between $150 and $225 million in additional expenditures each year. The Department of Corrections also noted it would be forced to build an additional 17 alcohol treatment centers to handle the offenders which would cost more than $230 million.
The sponsors of the bill say that the cost estimates are inflated, claiming that the agencies have failed to take into account that the increased punishments will serve as a deterrent for drivers and that fewer people will engage in drunk driving in the future leading to lower government costs. Ott also said that expense should not prevent the state from acting swiftly to save lives, saying he doesn’t care how much it costs to stop what he deems dangerous behavior. Whether Ott is able to persuade the majority of his colleagues to swallow the bitter pill of hundreds of millions in extra spending simply to send a harsh message to drunk drivers remains to be seen.
Source: “Legislators say 3 drunken driving bills designed to send message,” by Todd Richmond, published at StarTribune.com.