Justice system struggles to curb Wisconsin’s repeat drunken drivers

Lawmakers plan to introduce OWI bills next year
Justice system struggles to curb Wisconsin’s repeat drunken drivers

A WISC-TV investigation found that hundreds of thousands of Wisconsinites have at least one drunken driving offense.

The number of repeat OWI offenders is also staggering, and in many cases, there’s not much being done to stop it.

There are some programs making a difference, but in a state with tightening budgets, fewer prosecutors and a steadfast drinking culture, the solution to the problem of repeat drunken drivers on Wisconsin roads seems further out of reach.

In Dane County, the treatment court team tackles drunken driving cases like “Casey’s.”

The group recently poured over his data before making its final decision.

In a courtroom, Judge John Markson congratulated “Casey” for completing a year-long program meant to combat alcoholism. The newly-minted graduate wanted to share his story, but not his identity.

“It’s just like people with their coffee. How do people feel when they don’t drink their coffee? Same way with alcoholics,” said Casey, who admitted to drinking a case of beer daily. “It’s what everybody did.”

He lost his license and spent a week in jail for his first and second drunken-driving offenses. For Casey’s third and final one, “It was pick this or nine months in jail.”

Casey is referring to a state-funded treatment plan that Markson helped create a year ago last August. Participants are closely monitored and given services they’ll need to succeed.

“We help them find jobs if they need work. We help them get a GED if they don’t have one and help provide them with those services to help them continue their integration into the community,” Markson said.

Of the program’s 17 graduates, Markson said none has relapsed. Casey has been sober for 14 months now.

“(Driving drunk isn’t) worth it. Call a cab, walk, take the bus. I got lucky I didn’t hurt anybody. I don’t know what I’d do with myself if I had hurt somebody,” Casey said.

Two years ago, Wisconsin’s Department of Transportation recorded more than 400 drunken-driving crashes in Dane County. Only Milwaukee County had more.

The number of Wisconsin drivers with at least one OWI conviction is pushing 300,000, according to the DOT. More than 5,000 people have four offenses, while 63 people have eight convictions. There’s one driver in the entire state with 15 convictions.

Mark Warner of Chippewa County said it was five years in prison, not just treatment, that helped him get sober more than a decade ago.

“At some level, you can make penalties as hard as you want. You can put more police out on the streets to catch more offenders, but if you don’t have the experienced and trained prosecutor in the court, we may not be able to hold people as accountable as they should be,” said Dane County District Attorney Ismael Ozanne.

Ozanne said the state is down some 200 attorneys because the job requires them to work too much for too little pay.

“They can’t afford to stay in this profession and fight the good fight,” Ozanne said.

This is all while a third-shift sergeant is arresting upwards of 100 OWI offenders every year.

Justice system struggles to curb Wisconsin’s repeat drunken drivers

“I’ve got a couple people that I’ve personally arrested multiple times,” said Sgt. Jeff Heil, of the Dane County Sheriff’s Office.

Heil said he has seen has fair share of fatalities, too. Since this same time last year, the DOT tracked more than 500 traffic fatalities, but it’s unclear how many involved drinking.

“They’re treating the OWI homicide as a homicide, which in the past, it was thought of just a traffic crash and, unfortunately, someone was killed,” Heil said. “So, I think the DA’s office is taking it more aggressively, and I think that’s a positive step.”

OWI penalties vary. So does the legal limit for a driver’s blood-alcohol content, which the state lowers from 0.08 to 0.02 after three offenses.

But convicted offenders can always reapply for their driver’s license, along with an occupational one that allows them to drive to work or school. In Wisconsin, there’s no lifetime revocation.

“People are just tired of burying children too early. They’re tired of burying their loved ones for something that is entirely avoidable,” Ozanne said.

To see the full description of OWI penalties, click here.

And while Ozanne didn’t expect any changes to Wisconsin’s penalties or laws, WISC-TV called state Sen. Alberta Darling (R-River Hills) and state Rep. Jim Ott (R-Mequon).

They plan to reintroduce two Assembly bills during next year’s session that, in part, increase the fine and jail time for first and second OWI offenders with a BAC of 0.15, as well as increase the felony penalties for drivers with three or more offenses.

To see the two bills in their entirety, click here for Assembly Bill 208 and here for Assembly Bill 207.