Back in 1991, Jeffrey Helnes of Wisconsin drank 18 beers, got behind the wheel of his van, ran a red light, and plowed into the side of a car, killing a 4-year-old boy. Helnes had been convicted of drunken driving five times before, spending less than 14 months in jail for all those offenses combined, says the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel in the second of a series. The case marked the beginning of a grass-roots movement to toughen the state’s drunken-driving laws. Eight years later, a new law made fifth-offense drunken driving a felony. The Legislature’s intention was to get repeat offenders off the road.
Almost a decade later, fewer than half the people sentenced for the felony in Milwaukee County go to prison, a Journal Sentinel analysis found. Nearly two-thirds of people sentenced under the stricter law spent a year or less in custody. Almost a quarter of the people convicted of the fifth-offense felony between 1999 and 2006 already have re-offended – some more than once. The newspaper reviewed all Milwaukee County criminal convictions for fifth-offense operating while intoxicated from 1999 through 2006–161 cases. Just 70 defendants, 43 percent, went to prison, receiving an average sentence of 18 months.