A group of lawmakers introduced several bills this week that would toughen the state’s drunken driving laws and increase penalties for offenders.
The six bills Sen. Alberta Darling, R-River Hills, and Rep. Jim Ott, R-Mequon, as well as some Democrats, introduced would mainly add more penalties for those who drive above the legal blood alcohol content limit.
“The main reason [for the bills], in a nutshell, is to provide a deterrence to bad behavior,” Ott said. “The thinking is if you increase the penalties for wrongdoing, it should decrease the amount of wrongdoing.”
The purpose of the bills is not to put more people in jail, Ott said, but rather to decrease the number of people in jail because there would be less drunken drivers.
One bill would make a third operating while intoxicated offense a felony, a change from the current law that makes a fourth time a felony if it is within five years from the last offense. It would also make future offenses more severe than under current law.
Two bills would focus on first-time offenders; one would require them to appear in court. The other bill would make a first offense with a blood alcohol content of 0.15 or greater a crime, not a civil violation.
Another bill would require at least 10 years of prison time for an intoxicated driver who kills someone, although it may be less than 10 years if it is one of the drivers’ passengers.
Legislators are too focused on penalizing, but are not doing enough with treatment, Nina Emerson said, director of the University of Wisconsin Law School’s Resource Center on Impaired Driving.
“I think treatment and prevention would be really valuable components, especially when you’re dealing with a repeat offender population,” Emerson said.
Emerson said she was surprised lawmakers proposed a bill that would seize vehicles for third-time or greater offenders. That law was ineffective when it was in place, she said, and lawmakers repealed it in 2009 when they passed major drunken driving legislation. The law could not prevent people from buying another car, she said.
Ott said some people in the Legislature are opposed to tougher drunken driving measures, and said passing all six would be a “pretty high hurdle.”
Ozaukee County District Attorney Adam Gerol, president of the Wisconsin District Attorney’s Association, said his group has not taken an official position on the bills.
Speaking as an individual DA, not as part of the association, Gerol said the bills would increase the workload for prosecutors, and would likely cost more money. He added most DAs would be willing to do that extra work if given the money.
The workload would come largely from the bill that makes a first-time offense with a BAC of more than 0.15 a crime, Gerol said.
He said increasing treatment measures would be effective, although he said they are more expensive. But, he pointed to a council Gov. Scott Walker created to reduce repeat offenders that helps counties provide rehabilitative services better as one way lawmakers are helping.
The Tavern League of Wisconsin, which often opposes such measures, did not return requests for comment Tuesday.