Measures that would boost penalties for drunken driving would cost $250 million a year and send thousands more people to jail or prison, according to estimates provided by state agencies that would be charged with implementing the proposals.
The state also would need to spend $236 million to build 17 300-bed facilities to house the expected increase in people serving time for drunken driving, the Department of Corrections estimates.
Those estimates don’t include the extra costs to counties whose jails would house offenders serving sentences of a year or less.
An identical set of six bills has been introduced in the state Assembly and Senate to crack down on the persistent scourge of drunken driving on Wisconsin’s roadways. Similar legislation failed to pass in the last two-year session.
Alcohol-related crashes and fatalities have been on a long downward trend in Wisconsin, but surveys have shown the state has the nation’s highest incidence of drunken driving. In all, there were 5,297 crashes, 225 deaths and 2,984 people injured in alcohol-related crashes in 2011, the most recent year for which complete statistics are available, the state Department of Transportation reports.
Rep. Jim Ott, R-Mequon, acknowledged that the cost estimates are daunting. But he said they fail to take into account any reduction in drunken driving that might be spurred by harsher penalties.
“The deterrent effect needs to be taken into account; otherwise there’s no point in doing it,” he said.
Ott also defended two of the measures that would create minimum penalties when a person is injured or killed in a drunken driving crash.
“What’s happened in the last several years is judges sometimes give very lenient sentences,” Ott said. “(Under current law) a defendant theoretically could walk out of court with no jail time.”
Although the lead authors, Ott and Sen. Alberta Darling, R-River Hills, are both Republicans, the Republican leadership in both houses has been cool to the measures, citing the high cost to implement them.
And even anti-drunken driving groups say there are cheaper and more effective methods — such as ignition interlock devices, sobriety checkpoints and alcohol treatment — that could reduce impaired driving.
Nina Emerson with UW-Madison’s Resource Center on Impaired Driving said boosting penalties “does not get to the underlying problem.” She said treatment would be more effective than longer prison terms.
“Nobody in the Legislature wants to touch the alcohol part of the equation,” Emerson said. “If you’ve got an alcoholic, that is going to continue to be a problem because they can’t stop drinking — and they’re going to continue to drive.”
Ott responded that “you’ve got to start somewhere” to combat drunken driving.
“I’m looking at simply one part of the problem, which is our penalties are too lenient,” he said.
Health First Wisconsin executive director Maureen Busalacchi said penalties are part of the solution, but those come into play only after someone has been caught driving drunk.
“Our focus is really on the prevention side: How can we lower the drunken driving rates by reducing binge drinking?” Busalacchi said.
The most expensive measure would make a third drunken driving conviction a felony — rather than a misdemeanor — and would increase prison time, probation periods and fines for people caught driving drunk four or more times.
The DOC estimates that bill, Senate Bill 60/Assembly Bill 71, would cost between $158.2 million and $226 million a year. An additional $2 million a year would be spent prosecuting and providing public defenders to accused drunken drivers. Five companion bills would account for nearly $22 million.
The prison agency estimates the bill, if passed, would put an additional 4,969 people in state prisons — boosting the existing population by more than 20 percent.
The agency said it would propose building 17 new facilities dedicated to incarceration and treatment of drunk drivers. In addition, an estimated 14,611 more offenders would be under community supervision by the corrections department, the agency said.
“The precise cost impact of this legislation will ultimately depend on the sentencing practices of judges under the penalty structures and the number of offenders who violate these specific offenses,” the agency said.
Ott, chairman of the Assembly Judiciary Committee, said he plans to hold public hearings sometime this summer on the bills.
He hopes at least some of the lower-cost bills could pass this session, including the measure that would require a first-time offender to show up in court rather than merely mailing in a fine. Being forced to stand before a judge, Ott said, might make a driver think twice about drinking before getting behind the wheel.