Two bills designed to toughen Wisconsin’s intoxicated driving rules have passed out of committee and are ready to be scheduled for a floor vote.
While southwest Wisconsin lawmakers generally support toughening sentences by prescribing mandatory minimum sentences, a Grant County judge said treating substance abuse is likewise important.
“I don’t think that any judge thinks that minimum mandatory penalties are a good idea,” said Judge Robert VanDeHey, who presides over the county’s treatment court. “Because you are treating everyone the same when there are many variables.”
One bill increases the penalty for homicide by intoxicated use of a vehicle to a minimum five-year prison sentence. Another imposes a mandatory minimum 18-month prison sentence for fifth and sixth offenses of operating a motor vehicle while intoxicated.
Wisconsin statute requires that people convicted of vehicular homicide while intoxicated are subject to a maximum 25-year period of confinement, but no minimum. A portion of the sentence can be served under community supervision.
The Wisconsin Department of Corrections estimated that implementing the policy will increase costs by $662,500, which includes hiring staff to handle an additional 24 offenders that would be imprisoned under the law.
The law also mandates that a person who commits a fifth or sixth OWI offense must be fined at least $600 and imprisoned for at least six months. The proposed legislation would increase the mandatory minimum confinement to 18 months.
The Department of Corrections estimated that an additional 710 offenders would be imprisoned under the law at a cost of about $15 million annually.
Grant County Sheriff Nate Dreckman said that, because offenders sentenced to more than one year of prison are not housed locally, his county’s jail population might decrease, thereby lowering costs.
Lafayette County Sheriff Reg Gill spoke in favor of the bills.
“I do think we need to do something to increase the penalties in those types of cases,” he said.
VanDeHey noted that while incarceration would remove offenders from the streets, “treatment courts have a better chance of changing behavior.”
State Rep. Travis Tranel, R-Cuba City, said he supports increasing the mandatory minimum on fifth and sixth drunken-driving offenses.
“The premise of making sure that we strengthen our drunk-driving laws, I completely agree with that,” he said.
Wisconsin Senate President Pro Tempore Howard Marklein, R-Spring Green, and State Rep. Todd Novak, R-Dodgeville, co-sponsored the bills. Neither lawmaker could be reached for comment for this story.