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Representative sees hope for stiffer OWI penalties in 2020

MADISON (WKOW) -- With hundreds of traffic deaths expected every New Year's holiday, this year marks the first in which Wisconsin drivers could face harsher penalties.

In November, Gov. Tony Evers signed a bill imposing a five year mandatory minimum sentence for OWI homicide convictions, but the bills author, Representative Jim Ott (R-Mequon) said it's just a start.

"Family members are re-victimized when a person who killed their loved ones walks away with a relatively light sentence," he said. "But everything else that's associated with this is hopefully convincing people before they drive drunk."

Ott has introduced five OWI bills this session. One has the governor's signature, two have passed committee with unanimous support and another has passed the senate.

Those bills include a measure that would extend the statute of limitations for first offense OWIs from two years to three years and extend it for an additional year for repeat offenses.

They also include more mandatory minimum sentences for third and fourth offense OWIs and a provision that makes it mandatory for someone to appear in court if they're charged with a first offense OWI.

Opponents of the bills say they're too focused on penalties and don't offer enough resources for rehabilitation but Ott said punishment isn't his goal, deterrence is.

"Who wants to be in a situation where they maybe would injure somebody and be responsible for that or put them in a situation where they're going to injure themselves?" he said.

Ott is hopeful the bills that have already seen support in 2019 will continue that momentum into the new year, but he said his toughest bill isn't likely to see the same success.

He expects his bill, focused on making a first offense OWI a criminal misdemeanor instead of a civil forfeiture, to fail in 2020. That bill has not yet made it out of committee.

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