A first time intoxicated driving charge in Wisconsin will continue to be treated like a traffic ticket, but lawmakers at the statehouse are looking to get tougher on repeat drunk drivers. 

The Assembly overwhelmingly approved two proposals on Wednesday. 

Rep. Jim Ott, R-Mequon, said one of the plans he supports, Senate Bill 6, would impose an 18-month mandatory sentence on anyone convicted of their fifth or sixth Operating While Intoxicated (OWI) infraction. Ott, who’s been trying to toughen Wisconsin’s drunk driving laws for years, said the idea is not to lock more people up. Rather, he wants to get a repeat drunk driver’s attention. 

“My best hope with this is that someone who is in court being sentenced on their fourth-offense OWI, when they hear from the judge or their attorney ‘Come back here again for OWI and you’re going to spend a minimum of 18 months behind bars’,” Ott said. “I think that’s a powerful message.”

Ott added that the average sentence for a fourth OWI in Wisconsin is about seven months in jail. 

The Wisconsin Senate already approved the 18-month mandatory sentence. That plan is headed to the governor’s desk. 

Ott’s second OWI legislation, Assembly Bill 379, would increase the statute of limitations in first, second and third drunk driving cases. 

“It increases the statute of limitations for first offense from two years to three years, and for second and third offenses from two years to three years,” Ott said. 

Prosecutors need more time to look in the rear-view mirror on drunk driving cases across Wisconsin, Ott said, because they often find out that someone arrested for an OWI here was arrested for a drunk driving charge in another state as well.  

“Sometimes a person has an OWI in another state, and it’s not noticed here in Wisconsin. And they get another one here in Wisconsin,” Ott said. “You can’t charge the one in Wisconsin as second-offense OWI ’til you find out about the one in the other state.”

That proposal now heads to the Wisconsin Senate for a vote. 

If it passes, Ott said four of the five pieces of legislation that he authored to get tougher on drunk drivers will have made it to the governor’s desk for signature. 

Benjamin Yount reports on Illinois and Wisconsin statewide issues for The Center Square. Reposted with permission.