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Wisconsin Judges Showing OWI Leniency

Posted on in Criminal Defense

operating while intoxicated, drunk driving penalties, Wisconsin criminal defense attorneyThe Wisconsin state legislature has attempted to take a hard line when it comes to the crime of Operating While Intoxicated (OWI). One major part of this effort has been their institution of mandatory minimum sentences for repeat OWI offenders. However, the exact length of the mandatory minimum depends on the number of previous OWIs, how long ago they were, and a variety of other factors. The result is that the mandatory minimum sentence for the crime can range anywhere from just a few days to four years in prison.

Now, a recent report by Gannett Wisconsin Media has revealed that some judges are not abiding by these mandatory minimums, and are issuing more lenient sentences. Although some are concerned about the fact that this report shows judges exceeding their authority, it also highlights the controversial nature of mandatory minimum sentences.

The Report

The report consisted of a team of investigative journalists reviewing 900 OWI convictions where the defendant had at least four prior convictions. The journalists found at least 12 cases where the judges had issued a sentence less than the mandatory minimum in place at the time. However, the issue is not so clear cut.

For instance, some of the cases involved a law where the mandatory minimum requirement was actually ambiguous. In fact, judges had been issuing conflicting rulings under the requirement for years. It eventually took a ruling by the Wisconsin Supreme Court to settle the issue, so many of the below-minimum sentences may have been legal at the time.

Beyond that, there were actually multiple cases in which the judge issued the reduced sentence at the request of the prosecutor. While this likely still exceeds a judge's authority if there is a clear mandatory minimum, it highlights the reason that mandatory minimum sentences can be controversial: they do not allow for discretion in individual cases.

The Controversy of Mandatory Minimums

Mandatory minimum sentences used to be a much bigger trend in criminal law, but more recently many states have seen efforts to start rolling them back once problems appeared. The mandatory minimums tie judges hands, forcing them to issue at least a specific sentence if they choose to convict. This creates two problems. First, mandatory minimums are created by legislatures who see crimes in the abstract. Judges have to issue the sentence based on the specific facts of the case, and those specific facts may call for more leniency than the minimum allows. Second, they move sentencing discretion into the hands of prosecutors because prosecutors get to choose what crime to charge the defendant with. This extra control of sentencing can often give them unfair leverage in negotiating plea deals.

If you have recently been charged with an OWI and want to ensure that your rights are protected, contact an experienced Milwaukee criminal defense attorney today. Our firm is here to make sure the court hears your side of the story.

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