Watch CBS News

Lawmaker: "Dirty secret" put brakes on Wisconsin DUI legislation

Wisconsin is the only state that does not criminalize first-time drinking and driving offenses
Wisconsin’s DUI divide lets first-time offenders off the hook 04:44

Wisconsin is the only state that does not criminalize first-time drinking and driving offenses, as offenders are typically given a fine and released after they sober up. The Badger State also boasts the nation's highest level of binge drinking.

Those incidents related to excessive alcohol cost an estimated $6.8 billion each year. That's $1,200 for every man, woman and child in the state, reports CBS New travel editor Peter Greenberg.

On game day at the University of Wisconsin, Badger fans get an early start. There's no alcohol allowed in the stadium, so the party outside is in full swing before 10 a.m. Tailgates will happen all weekend across the country.

"We have one of the biggest problems in the nation, and yet we have some of the fewest solutions to correct it," State Sen. Tim Carpenter said.

Carpenter co-authored four of six bills this year to toughen drinking and driving laws. None have made it to the state senate for a vote.

"The dirty secret is the assembly passed legislation last time, it came in front of the Senate transportation committee, but then Sen. Fitzgerald wouldn't schedule any of the bills," Carpenter said.

Scott Fitzgerald is majority leader of the state senate.

"If you had everyone appear before the judge, it would be very difficult I think for the system to deal with that right now," Fitzgerald said.

"What you just said, if I interpret the numbers correctly, that means there's so many people drunk out there, they can't handle the system," Greenberg said.

"Yeah, so if you went to a felony conviction, I'm not sure what difference that would make," Fitzgerald said. "We're trying to take an approach that we think will be more measured and the way to do that is to get these people clean."

Beyond the politics, but often in the debate, are the families forced into advocacy.

Judy and Paul Jenkins lost their daughter Jennifer, granddaughter Courtney and the unborn granddaughter Jennifer was carrying in a 2008 accident. The man who killed them, Mark Benson, was sentenced to 30 years in prison. It was his fourth offense for operating a vehicle while intoxicated and among the state's stiffest penalties.

But the Jenkins' say mandatory minimum sentences on first-time offenders may have prevented their tragedy.

Paul Jenkins said when someone gets pulled over for a DUI, the offender gets a traffic ticket. He or she doesn't lose his or her license or car.

"You don't even have to show up in court to answer the ticket," he said.

Julia Sherman is the coordinator for the Wisconsin Alcohol Policy Project. She says despite little action in the state legislature, progress is happening in town after town and through volunteer programs like police saturation patrols.

"These are task forces. They let the public know when they're going to be out on the road," Sherman said.

"It's a show of force, but also, they can pull over anyone that breaks any traffic laws," she added.

In a state that prohibits sobriety checkpoints, saturation patrols have shown success. Since Brown County launched the federally funded program in 2011, year-over-year reductions have been realized in alcohol-related crashes, injuries and deaths.

"More and more communities are adopting things and it's going to come down to the communities lead the way and the leaders in Madison are going to end up following them," Sherman said.

But Carpenter, in the state legislature for 31 years, says any significant change to Wisconsin's drinking and driving laws will take some more time.

"To be honest with you, I don't see meaningful drunk driving legislation pass this session or next session, probably after the next gubernatorial election in 2018," Carpenter said.

A new bill was introduced just this week, but it's considered a compromise bill because even if it passes, it would only revoke a person's driver's license after five DUIs.

View CBS News In
CBS News App Open
Chrome Safari Continue
Be the first to know
Get browser notifications for breaking news, live events, and exclusive reporting.