December 30, 2008

Wasted in Wisconsin

By Senator Lena C. Taylor

Vivid stories of families ripped apart by drunk driving.  Graphic, shocking tales of repeat drunk drivers on the road causing harm and injury, even death.  Those tales are the centerpiece of the Wasted in Wisconsin series in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel.  That series is part of an effort to raise awareness about drunk driving and demand some “fixes” to keep drunk drivers off the road.  It’s not a misguided campaign or one that we should avoid in the Legislature.

Lots of the fixes and laws that people are asking us to consider in the Legislature have different goals and ways of tackling the problem.  Some are directed at taverns, alcohol service, and consumption; some are directed at the actual driving and owning of vehicles by convicted drunk drivers.  But the debate under the dome seems to have centered on criminal penalties – namely making drunken driving a felony.

Currently, a person convicted of Operating While Intoxicated (OWI) first through fourth offenses is convicted of a misdemeanor.  Jail time is possible, fines are heavy, and driving restrictions are automatic.    (OWI convictions causing death or great bodily harm are automatically a felony.)  One of the proposals being discussed is to make all OWI’s a felony, including first offense.  That’s 25,000 new felony cases a year, based on current OWI charges.  Another is to lower the felony charging threshold from the 5th offense to the 3rd offense.  Our state fiscal agency estimates that the change will mean about 6,000 new felony cases in one year.

Felony cases don’t just mean longer time in court.  It means prison becomes the tool we use to “correct” these offenders problems.  Since Wisconsin is overcrowded by at least 7,000 offenders right now, we can see the future building of more prisons.  As chair of the Senate Committee on Judiciary, Corrections, and Housing, I have traveled to our state prisons.  It’s unfortunate for me to tell you that most offenders (I estimate 90%) cannot get AODA treatment until the very end of their sentence, if at all.

So two problems are apparent – more prison building and little, if any, treatment for people.  But there are more.  Everyone in the African-American community can identify with the incredible racial disparity in our corrections system.  Wisconsin is one of the worst states in the nation for over-incarcerating African-Americans.  Will this change of our OWI laws change that or help reduce our disparity?  Not while prison is the tool we use to combat drunk driving.

What this debate needs is a true discussion of what deters people from drunk driving.  That discussion must include how to do we keep already convicted drunk drivers from driving again while drunk.  This problem needs more than prison as the answer.  The threat of prison has not stopped 25,000 drunk drivers every year from taking to the roads; I doubt highly that it will stop anymore if we pass another law.  I look forward to hearing from you on your suggestions for a better solution.