« WSAU Opinion Blog

OPINION - A judge who knows what's going on

by Chris Conley

NEWS BLOG (WSAU)   Finally, we have a judge who sees Wisconsin’s drunk driving problem. Every county judge sees dozens of DUI cases each year. Most are plea bargained away. All the judge has to do is preside over a brief hearing, listen to the defendant plead guilty, and process the sentence that the prosecutors and the defense lawyer has already agreed to.

Brown County judge Timothy Hinkfuss had enough when 22-year-old Janae Owens came into court last week. While driving drunk in Green Bay she crashed into two homes, ruptured a gas line, hit another car, and injured her passenger. Her blood alcohol level was twice the legal limit. It was the second time she’d been caught driving drunk.

She was supposed to be in court for a plea hearing. The plea bargain called for three years of probation. She could have served 8 to 12 months in prison. Judge Hinkfuss rejected the plea as too lenient. He sentenced Owens to 18 months in jail on the spot.

Some say this is too harsh for a second conviction. But it’s not the second time that Janae Owens has driven drunk; it’s just the second time she’s been caught. Others say she got a harsher sentence because she’s black. That’s insulting. She admits to the crime. And the punishment is appropriate for someone who shows reckless disregard for public safety. Owens also made a mistake in court: she didn’t apologize. “I’m sorry for what I did” are the magic words that judges look for. The best she could come up with was: “what I did was really foolish… I embarrassed myself.”

We need more judges like this. I wish someone like Judge Hinkfuss could preside over the trial of Ashley Baumann, suspected of killing two of her friends in Lincoln County while driving drunk… or Shirley Hogrefe, who drove in the wrong direction for several miles on I-39 in Portage County, or the three other cases in our area where suspects are accused of their 8th, 9th, and 10th OWIs.

Judges aren’t allowed to predetermine the sentences for specific crimes. They must evaluate the case and then judge what the proper punishment should be. But here’s a reasonable guideline: 10% of the maximum sentence should come off the maximum for a plea bargain --  no more. A plea bargain is useful to avoid the time and expense of a trial. But offenders should also know that they’ll get only a small break in exchange for a guilty plea. If someone was facing a 5-year sentence in a drunk driving case, they’d still appreciate the 6-momths off of their jail time. But they're still supposed be in jail. Only then will Wisconsin send the message that we’re serious about doing something about the problem.

Chris Conley

Image: Drunk driving graphic from wsau.com