Study Shows Felony Wisconsin DUI Offenders Are Avoiding Prison

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Four days after Christmas in 1991, Jeffrey A. Helnes was in the holiday spirit and reportedly drank 18 beers before getting behind the wheel of his van. He ran a red light and plowed into the side of another vehicle, causing a fatal accident.

Helnes had been convicted of drunk driving five times before that tragic day and had spent a combined total of less than 14 months in jail for all of those offenses.

A grass-roots movement to toughen Wisconsin's drunken-driving laws began after 4-year-old Jon Port died in his father's arms on the side of the road after Helnes crashed into their car. After eight years of campaigning, a new Wisconsin DUI law finally took effect, making fifth-offense drunken driving a felony.

The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel reported that lawmakers intended to get repeat Wisconsin OWI (DUI) offenders off the road. However, an analysis of Wisconsin DUI sentencing has shown that less than half of the people who are sentenced for fifth-offense drunken-driving in Milwaukee County end up serving time in prison.

The study done by the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel found that nearly two-thirds of people sentenced under the new, arguably tougher, Wisconsin DUI law spent a year or less behind bars. It was also noted that people who had a higher blood alcohol content at the time of their Wisconsin DUI arrests didn't necessarily get longer sentences.

Additionally, researchers found that nearly one-fourth of people who were convicted of fifth-offense felony DUI between 1999 and 2006 have been arrested for DUI at least one more time. According to these statistics, the new Wisconsin DUI law has failed miserably in keeping repeat offender drunk drivers off the road.

A review of all Milwaukee County criminal convictions for fifth-offense DUI from 1999 through 2006 showed that of the 161 cases, only 70 defendants were sent to prison. The average sentence for these felony DUI convictions was 18 months.

Of the 70 Wisconsin DUI offenders that went to prison, 17 had the opportunity to substantially reduce their sentences by completing a treatment program or boot camp. At least one defendant was released from prison early after petitioning the judge.

The study found that the severity of the sentences for fifth-time felony DUI offenders varies greatly depending on the judge who does the sentencing.

While at least one judge is known for sentencing defendants to prison in most cases, others favor probation and say that sending people to prison is not the best way to keep them from re-offending.

None of the analyzed fifth-offence DUI offenders in Milwaukee County received the maximum sentence of three years.

At the time of Jon Port's death, Wisconsin's DUI laws classified all repeat DUI offenses as misdemeanors unless someone was seriously injured or killed. If a person was killed, the old law allowed for a maximum sentence of five years in prison.

Helnes was convicted of drunk driving involving a death and several other offenses and was sentenced to 11.5 years in prison. He was granted parole after serving seven years of his sentence.

Shortly after Port's death, the maximum penalty for first-time drunk drivers who cause a death doubled. By the end of 1999, the maximum penalty had increased to 25 years.

Under current Wisconsin law, people with previous drunk driving convictions who cause a fatal DUI accident can be sentenced to up to 40 years in prison.


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