Although injuries and fatalities resulting from alcohol-related crashes have declined considerably in Wisconsin over the past three to four decades, drunk driving remains a significant problem. In 2015, over 21,000 people had four convictions for operating while intoxicated, and another 9,535 had five OWI convictions. There were 28,790 OWI arrests total in Wisconsin in 2015. Of those, 23,031 were eventually convicted. 

The motivation is great for lawmakers in Madison to reduce repeat OWI offenses in the interest of keeping communities safe by preventing drunk driving. To that end, the governor recently signed two bills into law that impose harsher penalties on those with a previous record of OWI. The stated purpose of the legislation, according to one lawmaker, is to act as a deterrent against drunk driving, not to send more people to prison. 

Four strikes 

One of the bills is Assembly Bill 222, which makes amendments to the “four strikes and you are out” law currently on the books. Under the new law, a fourth OWI conviction will result in the revocation of one’s driver’s license unless the most recent previous conviction occurred more than 15 years prior. 

The law allows people with a clean criminal record to apply for a reinstatement of driving privileges after 10 years but prevents them from obtaining an occupational license. 

Minimum sentences 

In the past, the required minimum sentence for someone convicted of a fifth or sixth OWI was six months in prison. The second bill that the governor recently signed into law increases the required minimum sentence for a fifth or sixth OWI to 18 months in prison. 

Proposed legislation 

There is another bill introduced during the current legislative session that would make OWI defense more difficult in court. Most people arrested and convicted for OWI have only one or two offenses. The proposed bill, which is still awaiting a state senate vote, would provide prosecutors more time to investigate first- and second-time offenders to look for previous instances of OWI.