A bill requiring fifth and sixth offense drunk drivers to serve at least 18 months in prison could cost state taxpayers up to $20 million per year, State Rep. Evan Goyke (D-Milwaukee) told an Assembly committee Thursday.
Fifth and sixth offense OWI offenders now face minimum prison sentences of six months.
Goyke, who emphasized he was not addressing the merits of toughening drunk driving laws, said he developed his cost estimate because the Department of Corrections failed to provide one. Fiscal estimates that estimate the cost of implementing legislation are developed by departments at the direction of the Department of Administration.
Goyke suggested the DOC estimate was omitted because the Walker administration did not want to make the costs of the measure public.
"That fiscal estimate would have a really, really big number attached to it," he said, adding, "I also don't think this committee should vote on a bill without knowing the cost."
For his own estimate, Goyke used conviction data from 2015, when there were 491 fifth offense drunk driving and 223 sixth offense drunk driving convictions. He assumed that all fifth and sixth offense drunk drivers are now sentenced to six months in prison, and that all of them will be sentenced to 18 months, triple the previous sentence, should the bill be passed. Goyke estimated incarceration costs would also triple under the bill.
Some Republican committee members disputed Goyke's estimate, saying many people sentenced for fifth and sixth drunk driving are sentenced to much longer than the minimum six months in prison, so that costs would not triple.
State Rep. Kathleen Bernier (R-Chippewa Falls), said that cost is a concern but "you can't put a number on the lives."
State Rep. Jim Ott (R-Mequon), the main sponsor of the legislation, said his intention was not to send more people to prison for 18 months, but wanted the tougher penalties to discourage people from drinking and driving.. "I want less people driving drunk," he said.
Goyke also said the prison system simply does not have room to house the additional inmates. The Department of Corrections already is contracting with local jails for beds, he said.
DOC, in its budget request to Gov. Scott Walker, said it already is facing a bed shortage because of tougher drunk driving laws that took effect Jan. 1. Previously, most fourth offense drunk driving convictions were misdemeanors, and the law elevated them to felonies. It also tightened other penalties for repeat offenders.
DOC projected a need for 2,185 contract beds by 2018-2019, but Gov. Scott Walker proposed funding for just 977, according to the Legislative Fiscal Bureau. The Department of Administration, which houses Walker's budget office, said it did not expect the DOC projections to be realized "based on prior trends in law changes and their effects on population," the LFB said.
Gretchen Schuldt is executive director of the Wisconsin Justice Initiative.
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