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Debate of cost versus stiffer penalties for OWI offenders takes shape

MADISON, WI (WTAQ) - A public hearing Thursday came down to a debate over whether it’s worth millions of dollars to send more drunk drivers to prison for longer sentences.

The state Assembly’s judiciary committee heard emotional testimony on three bills from Mequon Republican Jim Ott. They would make 3rd and 4th-time OWI a felony, require a minimum six month jail term for injuring others while driving drunk, and create a mandatory 10 year term for homicide by drunk driving.

Paul Jenkins told lawmakers he’s had no closure, after his relative Jennifer Bukosky died in 2008. The popular Oconomowoc teacher and two of her children died after her car was rear-ended by a doctor who was high on prescription drugs with three OWI convictions.

Dawn Johnson of Mothers Against Drunk Driving said Wisconsin laws are, “lacking.”

Committee members were sympathetic, but were concerned about the added costs – up to $220 million a year just to send third and fourth-time offenders to prison, plus another $230 million to build extra prison space.

Counties’ association lobbyist David Callender said it would cost counties an extra $50 a day to jail each new offender – and they don’t have the budgets for it. He said counties would not oppose the bill if the state would pick up the tab.

Ott said he couldn’t imagine telling a victim’s family, “It’s going to cost too much, so we are going to have to give them only two years in prison.”

He said Wisconsin does not take drunk driving seriously enough.