MADISON, Wis. (AP) – In a story March 23 about drunken driving legislation, The Associated Press reported erroneously that Waukesha County District Attorney Brad Schimel, who is running as a Republican for attorney general, opposes tougher penalties. He has not taken a position for or against tougher penalties.
A corrected version of the story is below:
MADISON, Wis. (AP) – Wisconsin remains the only state in the nation where a first-time drunken driving conviction brings a ticket and not jail time, after a session in which lawmakers failed to toughen penalties despite nearly a dozen bills before them.
With the session winding down, lawmakers have sent only one drunken driving bill to Gov. Scott Walker. The bill clarifies earlier legislation intended to force judges to sentence drunken drivers to a minimum amount of prison time in certain cases. It does not establish new penalties.
Wisconsin lawmakers have repeatedly refused to make substantial changes to the drunken driving laws in a state where the fatality rate is higher than the national average. This year, they passed on bills that would have made a first offense a misdemeanor and required the use of Breathalyzer-like devices in cars belonging to people charged with drunken driving.
Jim Palmer, executive director of the Wisconsin Professional Police Association, which supports stronger penalties for drunken driving, suggested legislators should come back with fewer, more targeted proposals next session.
“Perhaps it was just too much for any one of the groups or for the lawmakers to get their arms around,” Palmer said.
The latest push to toughen penalties came from Rep. Jim Ott, R-Mequon, who offered bills to make first-time offenses a crime and toughen penalties for repeat offenders. Ott took on the issue in 2008 after a constituent’s pregnant daughter and 10-year-old granddaughter were killed by a drunken driver.
“We continue to have so many outrageous crashes in Wisconsin,” Ott told The Associated Press in 2012. “Do we just sit back and say ‘we have to live with this’ or are we going to try and do something?”
Ott’s spokeswoman said Friday that he would not be available to comment until Monday after staying up all night Thursday for a marathon session that ran into the next day.
Two hundred people died in drunken driving-related accidents in 2012 in Wisconsin, according to the Department of Transportation. It did not have figures for 2013. Wisconsin’s drunken driving fatality rate, with 3.4 deaths per 100,000 residents, exceeds the national average (3.2) and is much higher than in Illinois (2.5) and Minnesota (2.1).
Groups working to reduce drunken driving called the session a loss.
“What we’d like to see in Wisconsin (is an) ignition interlock law, an adult discussion on sobriety checkpoints and have some sort of discussion on making a first offense in some shape or form a crime,” said Frank Harris, a lobbyist for Mothers Against Drunk Driving.
A bill requiring people charged with operating a vehicle while intoxicated to blow into a device similar to a Breathalyzer to start a car stalled in committee. It faced opposition from the Tavern League of Wisconsin, the state’s powerful alcohol lobby, and some Democrats who said it targeted people who probably couldn’t afford the devices.
Federal road safety agencies have said ignition interlocks are a good way to prevent people from drinking and driving repeatedly. But some Democrats want a broader approach, saying the state needs to change its drinking culture.
“What we have to do is to tell everyone you are going to get caught if you drink and drive,” said Rep. Evan Goyke, D-Milwaukee.
Drunken driving is likely to be a key part of the race for attorney general. Waukesha County District Attorney Brad Schimel, the only Republican running for the office, was charged with drunken driving in 1990. Dane County District Attorney Ismael Ozanne, one of two Democrats running, received an alcohol-related traffic citation in 1986.
Ismael Ozanne and Rep. Jon Richards, the other Democratic candidate, support stronger penalties for drunken driving. Schimel has not taken a position.