Officials examine Wisconsin OWI laws

Wisconsin is the only U.S. state where a first-time DUI charge is not a criminal offense. That means those who receive one may only get a traffic citation instead of harsher punishments such as a prison sentence or a criminal charge on their record.

Because of this, officials in the state say they want to increase penalties for first-time offenders. But some wonder whether it could disincentivize people from drunk driving and worry that changes could create a financial burden for Wisconsin’s citizens.

Zero tolerance for one-time offenses

Authorities in support of changes say they have zero tolerance for drinking and driving. Many have also mentioned first-time incidences can cause agony and distress for those involved in a crash. One officer discussed how they had to tell a group of individuals their friend was killed after getting in a head-on collision with a drunk driver.

An increase in cases

In Columbia County, officers say they made more than 1000 OWI related arrests from 2014-2018 and while they said the majority of them were first-time offenses, they are seeing an increase in people receiving more than one charge. Authorities in other places across the state have also seen more DUI cases involving drug use.

Others worry about weight of costs

While many law enforcement officials are in support of raising penalties, others say they want to evaluate whether doing so could result in fewer crashes and fatalities on Wisconsin roads. They also worry the process of prosecuting first-time offenders could create a burden for taxpayers, saying more prosecutions could increase court costs.

Offering alternatives

A few municipalities across the state have already looked into other options that help keep drunk drivers off the road. Sauk County is offering a program for its citizens called “Bar Buddies,” which gives people rides to and from establishments that serve alcohol. Other areas are looking at similar methods, including reimbursing bargoers for their commute home.

As the debate continues regarding DUI penalties, Wisconsin state lawmakers recently passed legislation that would increase funding for treatment and diversion courts for those who need treatment for alcoholism.