EDITORIAL: Seven OWIs deserve more than six months in prison

EDITORIAL: Seven OWIs deserve more than six months in prison

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We’re in favor, in principle, of a program aimed at deterring imprisoned drunken drivers from reoffending, and can even see the value in early release for those who complete the program.

But when it comes to someone doing time for his or her seventh OWI conviction, we’re less inclined to let that person out early.

Jack Gramza, 57, of Oak Creek pleaded guilty in March to a seventh OWI offense. With a seventh OWI conviction, Wisconsin law mandates a minimum three-year prison term. Milwaukee County Circuit Court Judge Pedro Colón also sentenced Gramza to three more years on supervised release, a $600 fine, revoked his license and required an ignition interlock when and if he ever drives again, the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel reported.

But Colon also deemed Gramza eligible for the Earned Release Program, which could trim his incarceration to just six months. The Department of Corrections offers the program to some offenders with substance abuse problems. If they participate successfully they can leave prison early.

The DOC recently notified Milwaukee County Circuit Judge David Borowski that Gramza had completed the program and asked that he convert Gramza’s remaining 2½ years of incarceration to extended supervision. Borowski inherited the case during the last rotation of judicial assignments, and has requested briefs from the DOC and the district attorney’s office regarding his authority to grant such a release in light of what seems to be mandatory-minimum incarceration. The briefs are due in early December.

Colón told the Journal Sentinel he never expected Gramza would be in and out of ERP so soon, because typically it would take months on a waiting list before he could even start the five-month program. He said he agrees with Borowski that Gramza’s release so soon on a minimum mandatory sentence doesn’t make sense.

The ERP, also known as the Substance Abuse Program, is aimed at offenders convicted of non-violent, non-assaultive crimes whose behavioral problems seem strongly linked to substance abuse. It’s a full-time, intensive curriculum focusing on changing thinking patterns, social skills and problem-solving.

Supporters say the program provides needed help to the right kinds of inmates and saves DOC millions of dollars by keeping low-needs, non-violent offenders out of expensive incarceration.

Lauren Stuckert, a Milwaukee lawyer who specializes in drunken driving defense, said that in 10 years, she’s never had a client who completed the ERD re-offend, and they’ve all been very grateful for the treatment.

“DOC devotes very good staff to this,” she said. “It’s probably the best program we have.”

Stuckert said anyone deemed eligible by a judge must still be assessed by DOC as either low, medium or high risk. She said most medium- to high-risk inmates have to wait up to eight months to get into an ERP section — which only start with full groups of 10 — at eight DOC sites around the state. The program lasts 16 or 20 weeks, but only 12 weeks for low-risk inmates.

Stuckert emphasized that judges have the power to deny eligibility or to adjust sentences to require someone to spend at least a year incarcerated before they could start an ERP session. By law, an inmate can only enter the ERP if serving three years or less, so if someone was sentenced to four years, they would serve a year before qualifying.

Colón said that for a time, he did specify in some sentences that a defendant spend, say, 18 months in prison before his ERD eligibility kicked in. But he said DOC officials pleaded with judges to curtail such practices because it complicated prison administration.

His prior OWI convictions were in 2003, 2005, 2006 and 2012.

Mr. Gramza was first pulled over for driving drunk 16 years ago. He’s been caught six times since then. Who knows how many times he’s driven drunk without getting caught?

While ERP sounds like a fine program, we believe Mr. Gramza needs to serve more than six months to be successfully deterred from ever again driving drunk.

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