Tougher penalties for first-time drunken drivers remain elusive
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Tougher penalties for first-time drunken drivers remain elusive

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It’s been nearly a decade since Judy Jenkins’ daughter Jennifer, granddaughter Courtney and unborn granddaughter Sophie were killed after a drunken driver slammed into Jennifer’s car at a traffic light in Oconomowoc in 2008.

The stunning episode threw Jenkins into what has become an uphill fight to change Wisconsin’s distinction as the nation’s most-lenient state for first-time drunken drivers — the only one that doesn’t charge them with a crime.

“I look back and think, ‘Wow. That was amazing,’ ” Jenkins said in an interview. “Of course we were immersed in grief but I think to keep sane I had to be — and my husband followed — I had to do something I felt was constructive, I felt provided some sense that my daughter and granddaughters didn’t die in vain.”

Now, lawmakers and advocates are setting aside their efforts to make first-time drunken driving a crime.

“We’re the only state in the country that doesn’t have a stiffer penalty for first offense — it’s treated like a parking ticket,” Sen. Alberta Darling, R-River Hills, said in an interview. “But we aren’t going to be able to change that. There isn’t the will.”

Darling and Rep. Jim Ott, R-Mequon, have been at the forefront of legislative efforts in recent years to make it harder to keep driving after being caught intoxicated behind the wheel. Their message had been: The harsher the penalty for the first offense, the less likely it’ll happen again. Now they’ve turned to increasing penalties for repeat offenders.

“When we got into this (we were told) this is not an overnight deal — if you’re in this, you’re in this for years,” Jenkins said.

“I’ve never really given up and I’ve accepted the fact that I’ll take the baby steps. I’d prefer this big leap to bring Wisconsin to the laws currently in other states, but I’m not Pollyanna,” she said.

During the last legislative session, bills to make a person’s fourth drunken driving conviction a felony became law and maximum penalties were increased for seventh, eighth and ninth offenses — major victories for anti-drunken driving advocates.

This session, the pair have reintroduced proposals that have failed in the past but now have backing from influential lobbyists who previously opposed legislation that increased penalties for drunken driving.

One bill would create a minimum prison sentence of five years for drunk drivers who cause car crashes that kill people. The other would block repeat drunken drivers and first-time offenders with a blood-alcohol content of .15 or greater from driving a car without an ignition lock that includes a breathalyzer to measure the driver’s blood-alcohol content. The device won’t unlock if the driver tests above the legal limit. That bill was approved by the Assembly in May.

“We’ve been told most people want to focus on repeated drunken drivers so that’s where we have settled,” Darling said.

“We’re finding the first-time offenders aren’t the big re-offenders if you look at where it is, it’s second (offense) and above,” Darling said.

Frank Harris, a lobbyist for Mothers Against Drunk Driving, said there “is no legislative will to treat drunk driving as the violent crime that it is.” He said a “pragmatic approach” would be to create incentives to use ignition interlocks for all first-time offenders with a blood alcohol content of .08 or greater.

Harris indicated the influential Tavern League of Wisconsin lobbying group, which represents the retail beverage industry, would stand in the way of lawmakers trying to make the proposal law.

Scott Stenger, a lobbyist for the Tavern League, said in an email the group supports the bills proposed by Darling and Ott. He declined to be interviewed.

A spokeswoman for Assembly Speaker Robin Vos, R-Rochester, said, “The Assembly has taken the lead in passing tougher drunken driving penalties. As an example, for two sessions legislation to require a first-time offender to appear in court (2013 AB 67, 2015 AB 352) was approved in the Assembly but not taken up in the Senate.”

Messages left for the offices of Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald, R-Juneau, and Gov. Scott Walker were not returned.

190 deaths, 3,000 injuries in 2015

In 2015, alcohol-related crashes in Wisconsin caused 190 deaths and nearly 3,000 injuries — or about seven or eight per day, according to state Department of Transportation data.

In spite of pressure from lobbyists that represent bars and the tourism industry and lawmakers concerned about the cost of imprisoning thousands of new criminals, Ott said he continues introducing legislation to toughen penalties because “we have too many alcohol-related crashes on our roads.”

“Too many fatalities,” Ott said. “If somebody gets a ride home from the bar, if they use Uber, if they drink at home — that’s one thing. But if they get behind the wheel of a car and they can’t navigate that car in a straight line down the road, and they can’t hit the brake in time to stop when they need to, then that becomes everyone else’s problem.”

Ott acknowledges that combating substance abuse-related acts are complicated but considers tougher laws to be “at least part of the solution.”

“I do think there is a deterrent effect in making the penalties tougher,” he said.

Darling said she’s hoping to see passage this session of the bill, which failed previously, that creates a mandatory five-year prison sentence for anyone who kills someone in a drunken driving crash.

“If you kill someone — you can say yeah, (there’s) not intent — but there has to be a tougher consequence,” she said. “I don’t like mandatory minimums ... (but) that’s really serious and there should be a serious consequence. I think it’s time.”

Costs a hurdle

The cost to the state to prosecute and house more criminals in prisons has long been a key hurdle for such legislation to pass.

To set a minimum prison sentence for drunken drivers that kill others in crashes, the state Department of Corrections estimated the state would need to provide an additional $662,500 annually to pay for carrying out the new penalty.

That comes after a cost increase incurred when lawmakers passed a bill last session that made all fourth-time drunken driving offenses felonies and boosted maximum penalties for subsequent convictions. An estimate from 2016 about the bill’s impact indicated the state’s prison system would see an additional $98 to $129 million annually in operating costs.

Jenkins said she’s thankful that lawmakers like Ott and Darling aren’t scared off by the specter of rising costs, or influential lobbyists.

“(Ott) is looking at the greater good rather than the good of the Tavern League or the individual person who is on the road with their fourth (operating while intoxicated offense),” Jenkins said.

“He looks at it globally and I’m not sure many people in the Legislature do,” Jenkins said.

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