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Officials: Prevention the key to avoiding OWI charges

Wisconsin is not lenient when it comes to OWI fines; a first-time drunk driving offense can lead to court costs and fees of up to $1,000. Some industry experts wonder whether it is really worth it to come down so hard on those who have been charged with drunk driving. It is not entirely clear, they say, that hefty fines actually prevent people from getting behind the wheel while intoxicated once. It is possible, however, that the fines provide an incentive to avoid multiple offenses.

Many industry professionals say that deterrence could be better achieved by a more obvious police presence that would lead to an increase in perceived risk of being caught drunk behind the wheel. Ultimately, it appears that such emotional response is more likely to prevent OWI behaviors than increases in criminal fines. Reports show that actual criminal fines for an OWI charge can reach $300. However, court costs can tack on up to $700 more, which can cause sticker shock among Wisconsin residents.

The majority of the more than 16,600 drunk driving convictions in 2012 related to first-time violations, according to official reports. Only 21 percent were second-offense violations, and subsequent offenses dropped dramatically. Some lawmakers take that as a cue that the higher fines are working.

Industry leaders such as the former director of the Resource Center for Impaired Driving at the University of Wisconsin Law School say that the fines are outmoded methods of punishment. Instead of focusing on the back-end -- the jail penalties and increased fines -- authorities should be considering options that will increase perceived risk of being apprehended. Too many drunk drivers simply believe they will not be caught.

Some lawmakers think that a multi-pronged approach that includes the use of ignition interlock devices could be the best bet. A movement toward prevention instead of punishment could be a positive change for those who would otherwise face drunk driving charges. Although some drivers may still face punishment for DUI charges, preventing the practice altogether will likely lead to a positive outcome for everyone.

Source: Wisconsin Law Journal, "OWI fines hefty, but deterrence effect debated" Associated Press, Apr. 20, 2014

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