Drunken driving bills' cost tops $250 million

2013-04-28T06:45:00Z Drunken driving bills' cost tops $250 millionDEE J. HALL | Wisconsin State Journal | dhall@madison.com | 608-252-6132 madison.com

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.

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(11) Comments

  1. aspyder
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    aspyder - April 29, 2013 9:23 pm
    Aren't we told time and time again that the penalty doesn't work as a deterrent? People deliberately murder and rape so they can spend a great deal of time in prison? It's obvious the penalty doesn't prevent them.

    Just last year I was sitting and talking with a woman at a friends house. She had 3-4 DUIs. She started talking about having to go to prison if caught again and how it would kill her mother. Then she got up, walked to the fridge and grabbed her 5th beer.
  2. John Ehrlichman
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    John Ehrlichman - April 29, 2013 9:05 am
    @jrclen-If someone would just change the penalties for the 1st offense to include some "teeth," you'd be surprised at the result. As it stands now, it's a freebie. Consequently, once you get the freebie and you haven't learned your lesson, you'll re-offend into a second offense that's very similar to a first offense in many states. The disconnect is pretty obvious. On the flip side of all this, marijuana enforcement in Wisconsin, is draconian by a lot of measures. Wisconsin and Illinois are the only places I've been around where a seizure of four or five plants makes the newspaper. All that does is attest to the fact that the liquor lobby in Wisconsin has the same stranglehold that the NRA has on the rest of the Country. But enough of the bad-I've been in Wisconsin for two years and it is the best State I've ever lived in and I wouldn't trade it for anything.
  3. timbo
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    timbo - April 29, 2013 7:06 am
    Geesh, BUsalacchi, why don’t you go reform campaign financing. Emerson, nice heart on your sleeve. Ott, drunk drivers are gamblers, they don’t believe they’re ever gonna get caught, may as well ban drive-by, school and campus shootings.
  4. jrclen
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    jrclen - April 28, 2013 9:58 pm
    Something is being left out of the discussion. There are literally millions of trips made by people who are over the arbitrary limit for blood alcohol levels. All without incident. Those are the people who are facing these harsh penalties. No one has been hurt, no one has been killed, no accident has taken place. Yet the government and the nosy busy bodies are insisting on penalties harsher than those meted out to people who rob, mug, assault, and hurt other people. On the assumption that something bad MIGHT happen. These harsh penalties will have no effect on reducing those bad things. People will still die at the hands of a drunk driver. Laws do not prevent bad things from happening.

    Government would be farther ahead by increasing the price of drinking by using extremely high taxes on alcohol. That will have a far greater effect then trying to convince someone that they will pay a huge fine and spend time in jail IF they get caught.

    Of course the masses will then simply switch to smoking tax free pot, but that is an argument for another day. :)
  5. midwestguy
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    midwestguy - April 28, 2013 4:30 pm
    Save the money for new facilities and make the OWI convictions wear a wrist band with a "confinement to home while working" sentence.
  6. John Ehrlichman
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    John Ehrlichman - April 28, 2013 2:54 pm
    @Whazzat-For the past year and a half in California if you kill someone in a 2nd offense, you are subject to 15 years to life.
  7. Whazzat
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    Whazzat - April 28, 2013 12:08 pm
    John - I feel the same way- but it's not just first offense. You kill somebody back home and you're going to spend a minimum of 5 years behind bars - that's with time off for good behavior. The mentality here is that anybody can make a "mistake". When I go home and people ask about living here I always tell them about the drunk driving laws and the unbelievable drinking culture. Sometimes I feel like I'm in the Twilight Zone.
  8. John Ehrlichman
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    John Ehrlichman - April 28, 2013 11:37 am
    As a fairly new resident to Wisconsin, I find it shocking how 1st offense OWI is handled. There has to be a stiffer penalty for first-time offenders. Gotta stop making the first offense a "freebie."
  9. davea
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    davea - April 28, 2013 7:57 am
    How much money does the alcohol lobby give to elections?
  10. Whazzat
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    Whazzat - April 28, 2013 7:55 am
    I'd like to know if the cost estimates for tougher drunk driving laws assume that the rate of drunk driving would remain the same after implementation. I know that many drunks will continue to drive - but many people who drive after they've had too much to drink will take a cab or have a designated driver in their group if the penalties are severe. Many in Wisconsin will shake their heads at my remarks. In fact, that's how drunk driving laws work in many states. People don't even consider driving when they've had too many because the penalties are too severe.
  11. MultiVortex
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    MultiVortex - April 28, 2013 7:32 am
    When is money going to stop being the only consideration? Are all the drunken driving deaths in our state tolerable given the high cost of protecting innocent lives? Yeah, $250 million is expensive, but 225 innocent lives lost in 2011 is worth more. How much did we spend in Boston after 4 people lost their lives in order to seek justice? Isn't 225 innocent lives worth fighting for then? Greed is making us stupid and inhumane.

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