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Project Drive Sober: The costs of first offense OWI criminalization

Their kids killed by drunk drivers, mothers...
Posted at 5:03 PM, Jan 29, 2019
and last updated 2019-02-26 15:21:21-05

This story will run Tuesday night on NBC26 at 10:00.

Law enforcement made more than 900 arrests on Brown County roads in 2018. That's an average of about two or three drunk drivers every single day.

Wisconsin is the only state where a first offense OWI is not a criminal offense. Currently, a driver's first OWI offense case goes to a municipal court. That would change if a first offense OWI becomes a crime. Those municipal court cases would instead go to a circuit court. Officials said that Brown County and the state may not be ready for that change.

"Maybe it's the thing to do, but the problem is there's additional costs to that process, and the state's got to be willing to recognize that," Brown County Sheriff's Captain Dan Sandberg said.

"Also, because it becomes a crime, it now invokes the right to an attorney appointed for the dependent at taxpayer expense," Judge William Atkinson said. "So they'll either get a public defender or a court appointed attorney, unless they can afford one on their own."

Atkinson said that there's currently a critical shortage of public defenders, and the district attorney's office is also short-staffed.

"There is a lot of layers," Atkinson said.

Another impact to changing the law would be at the county jail.

"Brown County jail is always right at maximum capacity, and we usually have some people that are shipped out right now," Sandberg said. "Putting more people in jail for a first offense is going to cause overcrowding."

Sandberg said the county's drunk driving numbers show that enforcement won't eliminate the problem.

"It's a cultural problem, and there need to be cultural changes," he said.

Sandberg and Atkinson both said that the costs and penalties with a first offense OWI are already a strong deterrent. Criminalization could further that, but there are significant costs that come with it.