Rock, Walworth county judges oppose mandatory minimums in drunken driving bill

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Nico Savidge
Tuesday, September 17, 2013

JANESVILLE—As state legislators consider a raft of bills meant to toughen Wisconsin's drunken driving laws, two local judges bristled at a reform that would require a long prison sentence for people convicted of killing or injuring others while driving drunk.

The Assembly's judiciary committee approved the package of bills last week. If signed into law, the reforms would change third- and fourth-offense intoxicated driving charges from misdemeanors to felonies, and require first-time offenders to appear in court.

They also would create new mandatory minimum sentences for intoxicated drivers who kill or injure others in a crash.

Under one provision, judges would be required to sentence anyone convicted of homicide by intoxicated driving to at least 10 years in prison, something judges in Rock and Walworth counties took issue with.

“You're really tying the hands of the judge if there are unusual circumstances,” Rock County Judge Kenneth Forbeck said. “I would prefer to let the judge use their intellectual ability … rather than have a legislator who knows nothing about what's going on in the courthouse make the rules.”

Mandatory minimum sentences are a common and controversial tactic in other states and the federal court system, where they are often used in drug cases.

Walter Dickey, a UW-Madison law professor who has studied the laws, said they are “very uncommon” in Wisconsin.

In courts where they are in place, “the trend … is to try to get rid of them,” Dickey said in an email.

A common criticism is that the laws limit a judge's authority to decide what sentence is appropriate, instead leaving that power to the legislators who make those laws and prosecutors who decide what charges to file.

Neither district attorney from Rock or Walworth counties responded to a request for comment.

Both Forbeck and Walworth County Judge John Race said they are opposed to any mandatory minimum sentences.

A lot goes into determining how someone should be punished for a crime, Race said, including investigations from the state Department of Corrections and testimony at sentencing hearings.

“It just short-circuits all the discretion that the judges have and all the accumulated knowledge of the entire system,” he said. “Why have victim input? Why have a police officer there? Why have an argument by the defense attorney?”

Nina Emerson, the director of the Resource Center on Impaired Driving at UW-Madison, doubted the threat of a lengthy prison term in deadly crashes would stop people from driving drunk.

Though she is also opposed to mandatory minimums in general, Emerson said they would be particularly ineffective in curbing drunken driving because offenders don't consider its consequences.

“Most of them don't think that they're impaired, most of them don't think they're going to get caught and they sure don't think they're going to hurt anybody,” she said.

Having cleared the judiciary committee, the package of reforms now moves to the whole state Assembly.

Despite the trend Dickey saw, if the sentences in the package of drunken driving bills is signed into law, it would mark the second time in 18 months that Wisconsin has added mandatory minimums.

The state adopted a mandatory three-year prison sentence in some child pornography cases in April of 2012.

While they have come under fire elsewhere, Emerson said, the laws are still popular among lawmakers who see them as a way to appear tough on crime.

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