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360: Examining whether first-offense OWIs should be a crime

Posted: 11:55 AM, Mar 26, 2019
Updated: 2019-03-27 15:43:48Z
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To hear all sides, let's go in "360." It's a new segment we're doing to explore multiple sides of the topics that matter most to Wisconsinites, bringing in different perspectives so you can make up your own mind about the issues.

Do you know Wisconsin is the only state in the country where getting caught for drunk driving is not a crime if it's your first time? Instead, you'll get a ticket and can simply mail in a payment. Why is Wisconsin the only state?

State leaders, advocates and families have been pushing to make a first-time OWI offense a crime. Many people think it would be a no-brainer, but it remains a tough sell in Wisconsin.

Pabst, Schlitz, Miller and Blatz are just some of the beers born in Milwaukee. Alcohol is a big part of our identity. Even our Major League Baseball team is the Brewers.

Has our alcohol-rich past contributed to a risky future?

One out of every 10 Wisconsin residents has been convicted of at least one OWI, and our state is one of the worst for binge drinking and alcohol-related crashes. Would criminalizing a first drunk-driving offense help?

For Paul and Judy Jenkins, life as they knew it changed forever on April 25, 2008.

The Mequon couple got a call that their daughter had been hit by a drunk driver while driving home from work in Oconomowoc. But she wasn't the only victim.

"She was killed, as well as her unborn child," Judy said. "Our 10-year-old granddaughter was also killed."

The impaired driver who hit them is still in prison. But in the more than 10 years since the crash, Paul and Judy say not enough has changed.

"The frustration of not getting laws passed is real," Paul said. "Of not even hearing about them being discussed for long periods of time."

Their state representative, Jim Ott, made a promise to them to toughen drunk-driving laws.

With Sen. Alberta Darling, Ott just reintroduced a bill that would make a first OWI offense a crime that would be punishable by up to $500, 30 days in jail, and/or two years of probation. But, if the driver goes five years without reoffending, the criminal conviction is removed from their record.

"The frustration of not getting laws passed is real. Of not even hearing about them being discussed for long periods of time." — Paul Jenkins, whose daughter was killed by a drunk driver

Seven years ago, an almost-identical bill never gained enough support.

"Too many people think that going out for a fish fry and having a couple of beers could put them in a situation where they might get arrested for drunk driving," Ott said. "There's a public perception that it could happen to anyone at any time, so people get nervous and don't really want to make it a criminal offense. To say you don't want it criminalized because it might happen to you is not acceptable. It doesn't have to happen to you. No one has to get behind the wheel impaired."

State Sen. Van Wanggaard, a former police officer, is chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, which decides the bills that make it to a vote.

"I am not in favor and would not support the bill," he said. "If it's a first offender, we don't want to destroy their life over one bad choice. Maybe they had one drink too many, and they decide to drive home from a wedding, and they get stopped by law enforcement. So now that individual, who has a perfect record, is going to have a felony or criminal offense?"

Sheboygan County District Attorney Joel Urmanski, while not against the bill, says criminalizing a first-offense OWI isn't going to solve the bigger problem.

"The Legislature finds more laws and more crimes to fit in every year," he said. "Does the fact that there's a law or more of a crime really make a change? How many people, before they choose to drink and drive, are actually thinking of what could go wrong? We need a cultural change."

"I am not in favor and would not support the bill. If it's a first offender, we don't want to destroy their life over one bad choice. Maybe they had one drink too many, and they decide to drive home from a wedding, and they get stopped by law enforcement. So now that individual, who has a perfect record, is going to have a felony or criminal offense?" — state Sen. Van Wanggaard

Ozaukee County District Attorney Adam Gerol warns that making a first OWI a crime will increase the workload for already-strained courts and jails.

"In my office, it would probably equal 300 to 500 additional cases," he said. "That's close to one more full-time person. My office is already staffed by about 50 percent."

Even so, he believes the bill should pass, as another deterrent to drunk driving.

"I think people perceive drunk driving right now as dangerous and wrong, but it's not enough to move the dial," he said. "We as attorneys and judges can't run from the work that has to get done. If we think about what the primary core function of government is, it's to protect people."

In 2013, state agencies estimated it would cost more than $5 million to hire enough prosecutors and public defenders to handle the influx of new court cases from criminalizing first-offense OWI.

The Wisconsin Department of Corrections estimates it would require an additional 22 employees and cost it nearly $2.6 million just in the first year.

"Maybe I would have gotten help sooner. The first OWI in Wisconsin is a slap on the wrist. I'll have people after their second OWI say if the consequences would have been as stiff for their first, they might not have had a second. That's pretty powerful." — Sherry Knoll, a recovering alcoholic turned substance abuse counselor

Ott believes that's an overestimation. He says passing his bill to increase punishment for a first drunk-driving offense would eventually reduce the number of people offending, ultimately saving our state money.

What do people think who've gotten an OWI? Sherry Knoll, a recovering alcoholic turned substance abuse counselor, believes from experience that a tougher penalty for a first offense could make a significant change.

"Maybe I would have gotten help sooner," she said. "The first OWI in Wisconsin is a slap on the wrist. I'll have people after their second OWI say if the consequences would have been as stiff for their first, they might not have had a second. That's pretty powerful."

Especially, she says, because the average drunk driver gets caught only one out of 100 times driving impaired.

Another major player we'd love to talk to about this is The Tavern League of Wisconsin. We reached out but have not heard back.

Another major player we'd love to talk to about this is The Tavern League of Wisconsin. We reached out but have not heard back.

First-offense OWI is Senate Bill 9 in the Senate and Assembly Bill 18 in the Assembly. Here is how you can see who has signed on as co-sponsors:

Senate:

https://docs.legis.wisconsin.gov/2019/proposals/reg/sen/bill/sb9

Assembly:

https://docs.legis.wisconsin.gov/2019/proposals/ab18

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