Here’s something you don’t see often: The Legislature last week sent a bill to deter drunken driving to the governor, who should sign it.
It’s a small step worth celebrating, though much more must be done to slow Wisconsin’s drunken-driving scourge.
Senate Bill 6 will discourage judges from giving chronic drunken drivers short sentences. The minimum punishment for a fifth or sixth offense for operating while intoxicated would increase from six months to 18 months behind bars.
Judges could still order a shorter penalty, but only if the judge explained in writing why less punishment is in the interest of, and won’t harm, the public.
Drivers caught behind the wheel while drunk five or six times have risked the lives of countless people. And opportunities for treatment for alcohol abuse haven’t worked.
The Department of Corrections estimates the SB 6 could cost $13.6 million a year for more prison space and treatment staff. But that assumes hundreds of chronic OWI offenders won’t get that message that they need help and have to stop.
Rep. Jim Ott, R-Mequon, said last week the average penalty for a fourth OWI offense is seven-and-a-half months. A judge will now be able to tell that offender that any further violation will result in a minimum 18 months behind bars, which should serve as a deterrent. And if it doesn’t, at least the offender will be locked up longer, which will save lives.
Ott highlighted the case of a four-time drunken driver who got a 14-month sentence, but a judge let the driver out after nine months. The driver drove impaired again — running head-on into a family, killing the husband and injuring others.
The Assembly’s overwhelming 88-10 vote for SB 6 should help convince Gov. Tony Evers to sign it.
Ott, Sen. Alberta Darling, R-River Hills, and other lawmakers from both political parties have proposed additional measures that merit approval.
Assembly Bill 18 would make a first offense for OWI a misdemeanor crime, rather than just a traffic ticket. It would bring Wisconsin in line with the rest of the nation, and give hundreds of thousands of drivers more reason not to risk getting behind the wheel after consuming a lot of alcohol.
While chronic offenders must be stopped, first-time offenders cause more than half of Wisconsin’s drunken-driving deaths, according to the state Department of Transportation. That’s because first-time offenders vastly outnumber chronic repeaters.
Another smart bill is AB 15, which the Assembly has approved. It would require first-time offenders to appear in court. Too many first-timers now skip their court proceedings by sending a lawyer or mailing in a fine. More of a deterrent is needed so first offenses aren’t repeated.
The Senate should send AB 15 to Evers.
Wisconsin convicts 20,000 people a year for OWI. Nearly 3,000 people are injured in alcohol-related crashes, and close to 200 people lose their lives.
Just last week:
- An impaired driver careened over a curb on Madison’s East Side, hitting a couple on a sidewalk.
- A Fort Atkinson man was tentatively charged with his third OWI after driving his pickup head-on into a school bus, causing injuries.
- Two drivers are suspected of being drunk and killing two men in Milwaukee.
On and on it goes.
The Legislature took a small step to improve public safety last week. Much bigger steps are required.
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