While the two candidates running to be Wisconsin’s next attorney general disagree on a lot of issues, both do have a similar view when it comes to proposals to criminalize first offense drunk driving.
First time drunk drivers who are caught in Wisconsin currently only face civil penalties, although there has long been a push in the Legislature to add a criminal component to the offense. Democrat Susan Happ and Republican Brad Schimel do not believe that’s a path the state should be heading down though, unless concrete evidence is presented that shows criminal penalties for first time offenders will improve safety on the roads.
Happ, the district attorney in Jefferson County, says the issue for her comes down to whether it would actually have an impact on drunk driving rates. She says many people already get behind the wheel knowing they could hurt or kill someone, even if they already have an OWI conviction on their record. Happ would rather focus on enhancing penalties for repeat drunk drivers “who don’t learn from their contact with the criminal justice system.”
Schimel, the DA in Waukesha County, wants to see evidence the penalties will actually work and cites concerns about the cost. He says “we need to know there’s going to be a benefit,” before the state commits to the high price tag that would be associated with extra OWI cases in the courts. Schimel says the Legislature needs to research if public safety has improved in the 49 others states that do have criminal penalties for first time drunk driving offenders.
During a recent debate, both candidates said they are open to changing their minds, once it can be demonstrated having a criminal penalty for a first offense will reduce drunk driving rates. Schimel and Happ face each other in tomorrow’s election.