Stiffer penalties for first time OWIs could be addressed in 2019

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MADISON (WKOW) — You may think driving drunk, even the first time, won’t get you in a lot of trouble in Wisconsin.

Right now, a first time OWI is considered a civil offense, not a criminal offense. But Gov.-elect Tony Evers has said he’s open to making the penalties stiffer for first time OWI’s.

Evers said he’s open to making it a criminal offense at a debate before he was elected, but he doesn’t want to increase the jail population.

The law enforcement officers were talked to are on board with stricter penalties for drunk drivers.

“I think personally law enforcement would be for a stricter penalty for a first offense and I think the legislature has looked at different avenues to proceed with that different penalties,” said Sergeant RJ Lurquin with the Dane County Sheriff’s Department.

Sgt. Lurquin says the current drunk driving offenses on the books can be costly in fines and you could lose your license, but agrees it could go one step further making it criminal in hopes to reduce repeat offenders.

In October during a governor’s debate, Evers said he’s open to the idea.

“I would look at making it criminal. But … it would have to be tied to ways to not just incarcerate people but to help them return to society,” said Evers.

The Wisconsin Policy Forum found more than 23,000 were incarcerated in 2017, a 2.3% uptick from 2016. Governor Walker said during the debate he is not in favor of criminalizing first-time offenders. In 2016 he signed a bill that increases penalties for repeat drunk drivers, which makes a fourth-time offense an automatic felony.

Sergeant Lurquin and Gov.-elect Evers would like to see stricter penalties for first-time offenders but also have a plan to help people return back into society to avoid offenders going back to jail.

“Wisconsin does have a drinking culture which I think can contribute that some people feel it’s all right to have a few drinks and drive home and we in law enforcement try to stress it’s not okay.”

Courtney Terlecki

Courtney Terlecki

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