Lawmakers work to ensure repeat OWI offenders see jail time

Published On: May 02 2013 06:33:05 PM CDT   Updated On: May 02 2013 06:40:56 PM CDT
LA CROSSE, Wis. -

Getting behind the wheel when drunk is a serious and sometimes fatal decision that can impact more than just the driver.

That's why a group of state legislators are looking to close sentencing loopholes for people arrested multiple times for drunk driving and make sure they see jail time.

Wisconsin currently has minimum jail sentences for repeat drunken drivers, but it leaves room for judges to decide whether to impose it.

That's why a group of state legislators are introducing a new bill that makes sure jail time is mandatory.

It's a familiar case in the La Crosse County Courts.

"We have a number of OWI's every day," said La Crosse County District Attorney Tim Gruenke.

The majority are first time offenders.

"A lot of people who get a first don't ever come back," said Gruenke.

But it's those that are arrested multiple times for drunk driving that state legislators have their eye on.

They're trying to pass a bill that would tighten up a current law and make minimum jail sentences mandatory.

"It does correct the wording with just a slight correction to assert that we do have those mandatory minimums in Wisconsin," said state rep. Jim Ott.

The bill will make sure people caught driving drunk for their 7th, 8th, or 9th time would see at least 3 years of jail time.

For 10th,  11th and 12th it's up to 4 years.

"The main thing we're looking at is deterrence. If someone gets a 6th they know if they get another one they're going to spend 3 years in prison and maybe it will give them cause to change their decision," said Ott.

But Gruenke said it's a bad idea to restrict judges' power to sentence on a case by case basis. 

"Any time you have a minimum it takes away the power of the judge to decide and there are some cases where for whatever reason it may not be appropriate in the particular case. Making it mandatory across the entire state is short sighted," said Gruenke.

Gruenke also said that the most effective way to prevent repeated OWIs is to put people through programs like OWI-Court where they can receive help for their addiction.

The Assembly committee reviewing the bill will vote on it next Thursday.