RACINE COUNTY — Local law enforcement offered a tepid response Monday as state legislators began circulating a bill designed to curb drunken driving by instituting tougher penalties for offenders.
“Each time (penalties for drunken driving) get more severe, it seems people continue doing it,” said Gary Larsen, a lieutenant with the Caledonia Police Department, which he said fields around 190 OWIs each year.
Although Larsen said time will tell whether heightened penalties decrease those, it’s a hard problem to solve because drinking is a societal issue. That’s especially true in Wisconsin, which consistently gets ranked worst nationally for binge drinking by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and where state laws penalizing drunken driving are among the weakest in the nation.
In hopes of changing that, two Republican lawmakers are seeking support for legislation that would make first-time offenders with blood alcohol levels of 0.15 percent or higher guilty of a misdemeanor; require first-time offenders to appear in court even if they face a civil violation; make a third offense a felony; and allow police to seize third-time offenders’ cars.
Drunken drivers who injure someone would face new mandatory minimum sentences ranging from six months in jail to three years in prison, depending on the severity of the injuries. Drivers who kill someone would face a new mandatory minimum sentence of 10 years in prison.
County Sheriff Christopher Schmaling called the proposals a step in the right direction, but expressed some ambivalence.
“Naturally, I support this, but I’m not thoroughly convinced that the individuals who first-time drink and drive will be influenced ... they don’t think about the consequences,” he said.
As for repeat offenders, Schmaling said, “They don’t care about penalties.”
Schmaling’s concerns echo the findings of experts at the University of Wisconsin-Madison Law School’s Resource Center on Impaired Driving: If drivers don’t believe they’ll get caught, then stiffer penalties have a negligible long-term impact.
“That just isn’t the end-all answer,” said the Center’s director, Nina Emerson. “This is pretty much more of the same, and how well has the same worked?”
According to Emerson, a driver on his or her first offense likely won’t be deterred by the threat of a misdemeanor; drivers on their third or fourth offense are often alcoholics, and likewise aren’t dissuaded by higher penalties.
Emerson points to sobriety checkpoints and saturation patrols, which assert a police presence strong enough to convince drivers that getting caught driving drunk is a real possibility. Additionally, for repeat offenders, alcoholism treatment programs are more likely to change behavior than jail time, felonies or fines, Emerson said.
Schmaling said the county sheriff’s department already “proactively patrols” for drunken drivers, typically netting about half of the 700 or so offenders annually caught county-wide.
Although he has his doubts, Schmaling said, “If new penalties get even one person to stop and think before getting behind the wheel and hurting someone, then I fully support it.”
County-wide drunken driving arrests
2011: 690; 300 arrested by Sheriff’s Department
2012: 730; 350 arrested by Sheriff’s Department
The Associated Press contributed to this report.