Advocates cautiously optimistic after OWI bills pass Assembly

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MADISON (WKOW) — Two bills that would stiffen OWI penalties passed the Wisconsin Assembly Thursday but advocates for drunk driving reform aren’t celebrating yet.

In the past 10 years, Wisconsin’s seen few changes in its OWI laws. In a 27 News special report, we found, since 2009, 112 bills have been introduced but only 12 have been signed into law.

For Marla Hall, it’s been difficult to keep hope alive.

“I mean it’s just something that has to end,” she said.

Two and a half years after losing her son, Clenton, in a drunk driving crash, Hall said she still struggles to cope every day.

“There’s a ton of videos of him when he was little,” she said. “I can’t look at them yet.”

He and his fiance were killed immediately when a wrong-way driver hit a coworker’s vehicle as they were returning from a work event.

“Wisconsin enables these people just to continue to do it because there’s hardly a consequence,” Hall said.

In the years since the crash, Hall’s been working with Representative Jim Ott (R-Mequon) to pass stiffer OWI penalties, including the two bills that passed on Thursday. One would make it mandatory for a first-time offender to appear in court. The other mandates a minimum five-year sentence for a driver who kills someone while under the influence.

“I hope they pass,” Hall said. “I’m worried about the Senate.”

That’s where Frank Harris, the director of government affairs with Mothers Against Drunk Driving, said these bills often struggle to get to the floor. He too has been working with Ott to change Wisconsin’s laws. When asked if he thought this year would be different, Harris said he’s cautiously optimistic.

“It depends if people in Wisconsin reach out to their lawmakers,” he said. “Hopefully I’m wrong, but I’ve been doing this for eleven and a half years throughout the country.”

No matter the outcome, Hall said she’s going to continue her fight.

“Some days I wanna give up but then I just can’t,” she said. “I mean it’s not going to end 100 percent but we can do a lot more than we’re doing.”

The state Senate has not yet set a hearing date for the two bills that recently passed the Assembly.

Two of Ott’s other bills, which includes one measure that would make first offense OWIs a misdemeanor, have not made it out of committee this session.

Michelle Alfini

Michelle Alfini

Reporter, WKOW

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