One of the most exciting advances in recent debates about public policy has been the recognition that old approaches to criminal justice have not worked. This is especially true with regard to issues of addiction and drug and alcohol abuse.
Democrats and Republicans, liberals and conservatives, have begun to recognize that jailing people with addictions, and saddling them with criminal records, does nothing to solve society’s problems. In fact, it often makes things worse.
So it is disappointing that state Rep. Jim Ott and state Sen. Alberta Darling, a pair of Milwaukee-area Republicans, are pushing a plan to make initial operating-under-the-influence offenses punishable by 30 days in jail. This is wrongheaded, as is a suggestion by Democratic Gov. Tony Evers that he hopes to criminalize the first offense in hopes of deterring drunken driving.
Wisconsin needs to take steps to address drinking and driving abuses. But the right response is treatment, not incarceration. People who drink and drive require counseling and therapy, hospitalization where necessary and outpatient regimens where possible.
The state has a duty to outline responses that are appropriate and effective; and the courts have a parallel duty to mandate that those who drive while intoxicated complete programs that are designed not only to address dangerous behaviors but to promote personal responsibility.
Where injuries to others and repeated offenses are involved, it is appropriate to punish wrongdoers. But it is backward and unproductive to imagine that nonviolent first offenses merit extended jail time or criminal records.