Sunday, June 27, 2010

Wisconsin Adds more Weapons to Battle with Drunken Drivers

The Northwestern

Officer Mike Weinberger patrols the streets Wednesday night in the Town of Menasha. A new law imposing tougher consequences for drunken driving goes into effect Thursday. (Post-Crescent photo by Dan Powers)
It's a gamble taken all too frequently by Wisconsin residents: Getting behind the wheel of car while drunk.

To combat the problem, the state has raised the ante with the most ambitious package of drunken-driving reforms in decades. One of the primary aims of the law, which takes effect Thursday, is to persuade impaired motorists to stay off the roads.

But there is considerable debate about whether the target audience will get the message.

"Many people simply think that they won't get caught," Neenah Police Chief Kevin Wilkinson said. "Until we can intrude in the psychology of that, that portion won't change."Many police officials, lawmakers, researchers and safety advocates are taking a wait-and-see approach on whether the stiffer drinking-and-driving penalties will make a significant impact.

Even with the changes, Wisconsin's law is not among the nation's toughest.

Still, state Rep. Tom Nelson, D-Kaukauna, said, the law marks the first major upgrade in how Wisconsin treats drunken driving in 20 years. It incorporates ideas that were subject to debate for years before Gov. Jim Doyle signed the law in December.

In striving for meaningful reform, lawmakers worked to incorporate provisions on punishment, prevention and treatment, Nelson said.

"It's not just a criminal justice issue or a prevention issue," he said. "We chose to take a different approach: Let's bring everything to the table. Let's bring all these approaches into this law."
Bad habit

Meanwhile, police and experts say Wisconsin's alcohol-driven culture puts it in a uniquely difficult position when it comes to improving roadway safety.

Nina Emerson, director of the University of Wisconsin-Madison's Resource Center on Impaired Driving, said drunken driving carries a certain degree of social acceptance in the Badger State.

A 2008 federal survey placed Wisconsin highest in the nation for driving while intoxicated. More than 26 percent of those questioned acknowledged having done so in the previous year.

Emerson said potential consequences don't often sway drunken drivers when the party winds down or the bartender makes the last call.

"They're not thinking, and they're definitely not thinking they're impaired," Emerson said. "Time after time, they'll say, 'I didn't think I was that bad.' They've also done it so many times without repercussions that it reinforces that behavior. That behavior becomes more entrenched."

Beginning Thursday, a fourth-offense drunken-driving conviction will be a felony if it occurs within five years of the previous offense. Currently, drunken drivers are treated as felons after a fifth conviction.

A first offense will be a misdemeanor if someone younger than 16 is in the car. Today, it's a traffic ticket.

Repeat offenders and first-timers with high blood-alcohol concentrations will have to get ignition interlocks on all vehicles they drive.

In addition, judges will have the power to place more drunken drivers on probation.

State Rep. Dean Kaufert, R-Neenah, said he is confident Wisconsin drivers will take notice once they start encountering others who have been stung by the tougher penalties.

"It was a compromise and we've taken another step forward," said Kaufert, who owns a bar. "In some people's eyes we didn't go far enough, and in other people's eyes, we went too far. The bottom line is that we coalesced on something that could pass."
More felonies

History provides a sense of the new law's potential impact on prosecutors' caseloads.

Last year, Outagamie County registered 57 convictions for fourth-offense drunken driving and 26 convictions for fifth or subsequent offenses, which were felonies. Another 16 felony drunken-driving cases from 2009 remain open.

In Winnebago County, 73 drivers were convicted on a fourth offense and 44 were convicted for fifth or subsequent offenses. Six cases from 2009 cases remain open.

Bottom line: More felony cases would mean more time spent per case.

Felonies require a preliminary hearing, to determine if there is sufficient cause to send the case to trial, which misdemeanors don't carry. And defendants are more apt to fight a felony charge because they stand to lose more, including the potential of going to prison and the right to own firearms.

Despite possibly larger caseloads and related expenses, adopting the tougher threshold made sense particularly when comparing Wisconsin to other states, UW's Emerson said. In 21 states, a third offense is considered a felony. In Indiana and New York, drunken driving is a felony on the second offense if it occurs within five years of the previous conviction. Oklahoma considers a second offense a felony if it occurs within 10 years of a previous conviction.

Only seven states have laws weaker than Wisconsin's fourth-offense standard.

"I don't think it's by any stretch unreasonable," Emerson said of Wisconsin's new law.
Focus on treatment

Some police wonder whether any degree of punishment is enough to break the behavior of those who've reached or exceeded the felony threshold.

"I think punishment has very little to do with it, frankly," Outagamie County Sheriff Brad Gehring said. "At that stage, they've demonstrated they have incredibly strong addictions."

That's where another portion of the law shows promise, he said.

"Legislatively, I understand the need to get tough, but with more alcohol addiction treatment we're hoping to have more positive results."

The new law offers counties the option to use a treatment-based program now available only in Winnebago County. Outagamie County will open its version of the Safe Streets Treatment Options Program to drunken drivers arrested after the law takes effect.

The program is available to those charged with second and third offenses. Participants who complete the Wisconsin alcohol rehab program receive less jail time than they would have under traditional sentencing. They would be placed on probation with alcohol treatment and community service among the conditions.

Annie Levknecht, alternative treatment coordinator for Outagamie County, said the initial benefit of the program is urgency.

Offenders don't have time to consider whether they're ready or willing to undergo treatment because they have just three days to get an alcohol assessment.

Those who complete the program similar to alcoholics anonymous will have two-thirds of their sentence stayed.

"There's incentive," Levknecht said. "Another key benefit is they get to stay with their families."

Winnebago County Judge Scott Woldt, who instituted the program with Judge Barbara Key in 2006, said it has benefited taxpayers by saving on jail costs and it is giving offenders the tools they need to avoid further offenses.

Winnebago's program has produced 266 graduates. Of them, 26 have re-offended.

Woldt said measuring success goes beyond facts and figures.

"I get letters from time to time saying, 'I didn't want to get into it, my lawyer talked me into it, but it was the best thing I ever did,'" Woldt said. "I don't typically get letters from people I've sentenced to prison. People are turning their lives around."

Woldt said he's given about a half-dozen presentations on the program since it was included in the state's new drunken-driving law. In addition to Outagamie, Waukesha County plans to incorporate the program into its alcohol treatment court, he said.

"It's going to be a slow process, but it'll slowly build," Woldt said.

Counties that decline to use Safe Streets still have better opportunities to keep closer watch on offenders.

The new law will make probation an option for those convicted of second and third offenses. Currently, probation is only available to judges for four-time offenders.

Winnebago County Dist. Atty. Christian Gossett said allowing probation earlier in the process is a laudable step, because it's vital to reach drunken drivers early and address the behavior before it worsens.

However, Wisconsin's probation agents are already overburdened, and it's likely drunken drivers wouldn't get the attention that would make it worthwhile, Gossett said, due to any given agent's higher-priority clientele.

"Make it a meaningful probation," he said. "If you can't, it's feel-good legislation only."
Mandatory interlocks

If stricter penalties can't stop drunken drivers from repeat offenses, there's hope that technology will.

Judges now have the discretion to order use of ignition interlock devices for repeat offenders. Beginning Thursday, the devices will be mandatory for repeat drunken drivers and for first-timers arrested with a blood-alcohol level of 0.15 percent or higher. The state's legal limit is 0.08 percent.

The interlock devices require drivers to take a breath test before they can start their vehicles.

Kaufert was among the lead Assembly proponents for toughening the interlock requirement. He said it was crafted to better assure that those ordered to use the devices follow through.

"People are always going to try to find a way to circumvent it," he said, "but I think it's a pretty good law."

Currently, the clock starts when a judge orders a driver to have the device in place for a certain length of time. The offender can ignore the order and drive illegally until the time expires, then get a new license.

Under the new law, a driver won't be able to get a license without proof that the interlock was installed. The clock on an order won't start ticking until an offender applies for a license and officials see the paperwork.

Wisconsin's interlock provision places it in the top half of the country in terms of the strength of the law.

Judges in 12 states are required to order interlock use for any drunken driving offense. Wisconsin will join eight states that require the devices with a 0.15 percent blood-alcohol content. Another six states have mandatory interlocks only for repeat offenses.

New Mexico has had success with provisions to assure drivers follow through with the interlock orders, Kaufert said.

"The compliance is way up, and the recidivism has gone way down," he said.

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