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Walworth County Sunday | Janesville Messenger | Stateline News



Monday, 16 December 2013 10:42

New bills target repeat drunken drivers

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Three bills expected to make their way through the Wisconsin Legislature next session would increase penalties for repeat drunken drivers while encouraging offenders to take advantage of treatment. Three bills expected to make their way through the Wisconsin Legislature next session would increase penalties for repeat drunken drivers while encouraging offenders to take advantage of treatment. Illustration by Dan Plutchak/staff

MADISON -- State Sen. Neal Kedzie admits that each session, the Legislature undertakes new attempts to address drunken driving, but success often is limited. However, that doesn’t deter Kedzie, a Republican who represents the southeast portion of Rock County, from pushing for more legislation this upcoming session.

In addition to circulating several proposals of his own, he is co-sponsoring three bills that he hopes will get to the root of the drunken driving problem.

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Kedzie says part of his inspiration comes because of a call he received from a family in his district a few years ago. They were struck by a drunken driver who crossed the median on Interstate 39/90 and crashed into them head-on, almost killing them. What made the offense especially egregious was that the driver was on his seventh drunken driving offense at the time.


"We realize we have a problem, and dealing with it isn’t going to come cheap, and it won’t be without the support of the public at large," Kedzie said. "We really have to take a serious approach instead of just nickel and diming or applying bandages to the problem. It’s going to take some bold initiatives and I think we need to start with some of these pieces of legislation."

Illinois focusing on treatment

State Rep. Joe Sosnowski, who represents northern Winnebago County in Illinois’ 69th District, anticipates proposals regarding the treatment of drunken driving offenders in the upcoming session in Illinois as well.

"There are always proposals brought to the table every session," Sosnowski said. "We will be heading into our legislative session in January, so I would suspect that there will be something bouncing around, but nothing that I am aware of right now that has any serious traction."

Sosnowski sees drunken driving as a serious concern in his district and the state of Illinois, both legislatively and legally, and discussions about the treatment of the issue always are warranted.

Nevertheless, Sosnowski feels the system currently in place in his district is dealing with the problem effectively.

"I think we are pretty good where we are at, our local state’s attorneys are able to use the law effectively and there is a good amount of discouragement for violating the law," Sosnowski said. "No matter how strict you make it, there are going to be people who will end up violating it, but I think we have enough flexibility built in at the local level to deal with repeat offenders accordingly. Our drunken driving incidents I don’t believe are increasing, they are being held down. We are effective with what we currently have on the books."

First-time pass?

Currently, many first-offense cases of operating while intoxicated, or OWI, in Wisconsin are municipal violations and the offender can pay a fine without making a court appearance.

Assembly Bill 67, which Kedzie is co-sponsoring, changes that.

"We’ve been way too lenient for too many years on not making first-time offenders aware of the seriousness of their actions, and the fact that you can just have an attorney represent you instead of you appearing before a judge kind of dilutes the seriousness," Kedzie said. "I don’t think an offender fully grasps the potential consequences of their actions. You need to come to terms with your actions and that’s why I support that one. I think it’s an extremely important bill."

Assembly bills 68 and 71 target repeat drunken driving offenders through a number of changes. These bills attempt to make a second offense a misdemeanor and a fourth a felony, while at the same time offering opportunities for repeat offenders to reduce their period of imprisonment by completing alcohol and other addiction treatment courses.

"I think there is a realization that in Wisconsin, we sometimes don’t really treat the problem, we punish the violator but we don’t make much of an effort to rehabilitate them through counseling and other actions that wean them off of their addictive behaviors," Kedzie said. "The problem is that it’s expensive, and that has always been an issue. You can assign the costs to the individual, but they don’t always have the financial means to pay for it, and I think incarcerating someone over time tends to be more expensive than to apply treatment."

OWI court offers treatment

Kedzie feels that the state has a lot to benefit by making these changes, but regardless, Rock and Walworth counties already have been taking a proactive approach with repeat offenders.

Rock County’s OWI court marked its first anniversary in October, and Walworth County has operated its OWI?court for more than two years.

OWI court is a four-phase intervention program that provides a variety of options and consistent supervision geared toward supporting and helping offenders maintain a drug- and alcohol-free life. It involves frequent court appearances, random drug and alcohol testing and group and individual counseling. Additionally the court awards incentives for compliant behavior and imposes sanctions for negative behavior.

"OWI court is operating very well as far as I can tell," said Walworth County District Attorney Dan Necci. "We have successful graduates. I think it gives folks, especially in an OWI type of situation, that one opportunity to divert from a life of crime, and if they are not going to take advantage of it, then the penalties become far more severe."

Necci feels that it’s the combination of strict penalties and a proactive approach that enables law enforcement to deal with these offenses in the best way possible. Walworth County court coordinator Katie Behl feels the same way, and suggests that the benefit of the court to the community and the offender goes a step further.

"It’s a finely tuned program, and it is succeeding in the sense that all participants who are entering our program are getting intensive evidence-based treatment that (is shown) to reduce recidivism," Behl said. "That’s not only benefiting our participants and the community as a whole, but it is also helping to repair the relationships the offenders have with their families, getting them back into the workforce and helping them get their GEDs. In a way, it’s kind of an all-encompassing treatment."

With OWI court in place, Walworth County already would be in compliance with some of Kedzie’s proposed changes. As far as raising penalties on first-time offenders, some officials question the effectiveness of such a move.

"Before I took office, Walworth County was the toughest in the state as far as its recommendations for sentencing on drunken driving, and I have made it tougher since I took office," Necci said. "You can have the harshest penalties on the first offense, but that isn’t necessarily going to stop people.

"That’s the nice thing about something like OWI court, it helps us weed out those individuals who obviously are receptive to help from those individuals who aren’t, those who are just incredibly dangerous to society."

Being a big proponent of treatment, Behl agrees that increasing penalties may not yield the desired results.

"Regardless of what the penalties are, people with serious substance abuse issues are going to make the choices they are going to make," Behl said. "I think that until as a community and a state we change our culture on drinking, I’m not necessarily sure we would see results with stricter penalties."

Local officials working hard

Kedzie is proud of the work being done by local law enforcement in his district, and although he would like to see added legislation in the state as a whole, he stands behind their efforts.

"Walworth and the surrounding counties -- Rock and Waukesha -- take it very seriously and I think that’s good. I know that the sheriff’s department and the other departments are working very hard to try to eliminate these problems. I stand behind our local law enforcement for doing a great job."

Heading into the next legislative session in January, Kedzie is hoping to see some movement regarding the Assembly bills. While each of the state’s communities and counties has its own methods of dealing with drunken driving offenses, it will be determined in session whether or not new policies need implementation.

"I would be very disappointed if we weren’t able to accomplish passage of some of these bills," Kedzie said. "I think that we have to get past the cost of treatment issue in this state and deal with the problem head on. I think there is the willpower in the Legislature to take this very seriously in the spring session.

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