Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Lenient sentencing in OWI

Lenient sentencing in OWI cases has become a game of Russian roulette. Four- and five-time convicted drunk drivers are allowed back into the community, increasing the chance that they will kill someone when they next offend.

Last week, Milwaukee Circuit Court Judge David Hansher sentenced an OWI-5th offender to a six-month “bed and breakfast” stay at the county correctional facility with release for 12 hours a day, six days a week. This comes on the heels of a lenient sentence handed down by him in February an OWI 4th offense within five years. In that case, he stayed a six-year prison sentence and ordered the man to serve one year at a county correctional facility with work-release privileges. It’s an act of judicial leniency he too often exhibits.

I've had it with judges like Judge Hansher who, by lenient sentencing of drunk drivers, place the safety of every motorist who drives on Milwaukee County roadways at high risk. These sentences are an abomination. Unfettered judicial discretion can act as legislative nullification.

Sensing public outrage, the Wisconsin state legislature worked to garner bipartisan support to strengthen the state’s attitude and law against this dangerous and deadly behavior. Wisconsin Act 100 makes a fourth conviction for driving impaired a felony punishable by up to six years in state prison. Unfortunately, judges were left with too much latitude in sentencing repeat drunk drivers. Many Milwaukee County circuit court judges lack the intestinal fortitude to go to the upper end of the sentencing guidelines, choosing instead the shallow end of the pool.

When Judge Hansher had a chance to protect us from four- and five-time drunk drivers, he instead gave defendants Cle A. Gray and Tom Burse safe harbor from prison. He figured these defendants deserved a fifth and sixth time second chance. We once again have to share the road with repeat impaired drivers wondering not if, but when, they will finally kill someone.

When I hear of an obscene sentence such as the one Judge Hansher gift wrapped for these impaired drivers convicted multiple times, other cases where judges have also exhibited extreme leniency come to mind. I think of Linda Chambers. Her father was killed by a three-time drunk-driver, who then received a six-month “bed and breakfast” stay in our Franklin correctional facility. Percy Chambers was killed several weeks before his daughter’s wedding. Then there’s Paul and Judy Jenkins. Their pregnant daughter, Jennifer Bukosky, and granddaughter, were killed by a three-time impaired driver who, after conviction, was allowed time to “get his affairs in order” before reporting to serve his sentence. And Nancy Sellars, who was killed by a repeat drunk-driver while riding her bike.

I have met the survivors who continue to live with the pain, as they wonder why the courts didn’t protect their loved ones when they had a chance to do so. I doubt that Judge Hansher has personally met the victims outside a courtroom like I have, because if he had, it would change forever his indifferent attitude about the one-sided justice heavily favoring drunk and impaired drivers.

I am again calling on the state legislature to enact stiff mandatory sentences for repeat drunk drivers. Too many judges have acted irresponsibly with the discretion we have granted them. When an offender is convicted for a fourth or fifth time, you have to ask why they are not sent to prison to serve a lengthy sentence, instead of the County Correctional Facility. Cle A. Gray and Tom Burse sleep in the jail at night, are fed breakfast, and then are released to mingle about law abiding society during the day.

In addition to ensuring justice, Judge Hansher has a duty and an obligation to protect the rest of us from impaired and repeat drunk drivers. As I’ve said many times, anyone who would choose to drink and drive after being convicted of drunk driving is not merely a nuisance; he’s a deadly threat to the public. It’s obvious to everyone except Milwaukee County Circuit Court Judge David Hansher. I want to remind him that it’s not justice until society’s needs are met. His version of justice is a potentially lethal game of chance – which endangers the public by making them potential victims of a drunk driver.

David A. Clarke Jr.
Milwaukee County