Why Are Some Judges Protecting Drunks And What Can Be Done About It?
In any workplace of about 50 people, you'll have some stellar employees, some average employees and some real klunkers. The same thing holds true at the Milwaukee County Courthouse. You've got a handful of brilliant jurists, a bunch of okay ones and a few real losers. The problem is that, as a practical matter, the way we elect judges makes it very difficult to separate the wheat from the chaff.
Believe it or not, I'm really not looking to pick yet another fight with the courthouse crowd. That being said, it's time for the Legislature and the public to take back a small measure of control over the legal system. Since several judges are either unable or unwilling to do the right thing when it comes to multiple time convicted drunk drivers, there's really no alternative other than to give them a little nudge in the correct direction.
As reported by the local newspaper earlier this week, between 1999 and 2006, Milwaukee County Circuit Judge David Hansher heard 12 cases involving defendants who had been convicted of drunk driving five times. In 11 of the 12 cases, Hansher opted to sentence the defendants to probation instead of prison!
To be completely accurate, the defendants sentenced by Hansher did spend varying amounts of time in the House of Correction (generally with work release privileges). This type of sentence however is known as "bed and breakfast". In other words, it's not much of a penalty - and it's definitely not hard time.
During the same period, Milwaukee County Circuit Judge Charles Kahn heard six cases involving five time convicted drunk drivers. As with Judge Hansher, Judge Kahn only sent one defendant to prison. The rest received probation with some "bed and breakfast".
Milwaukee County Judge Richard Sankovitz was only slightly better. Of twelve cases that he heard involving five time convicted drunk drivers, he put eight on probation while sending one to jail (a sentence of less than a year) and three to prison. Not exactly tough but Sankovitz looks like Judge Roy Bean ("The law west of the Pecos") compared to Hansher and Kahn.
Several other Milwaukee County Judges, including Mary Kuhnmuench and Karen Christenson, have also slapped more than their share of drunk drivers on the wrist. During the same period, judges like Tim Dugan and Dennis Moroney sent at least half of the five time drunk drivers who have appeared before them to prison.
Think about it! You end up being classified as a tough sentencer in Milwaukee County when you send more than half of the habitual drunk drivers who appear before you to prison.
If you think it's shameful, you're right. If you think that there's nothing you can do about it, you're wrong.
There are a lot of reasons why so many judges are squishy when it comes to sentencing chronic drunk drivers. First, many are simply liberal and therefore philosophically hesitant to punish people for what they may believe is a disease as opposed to a true crime.
Second, some judges want very much to be liked by the defense attorneys who appear before them. Imposing tough sentences is a quick way to become controversial in the world of the criminal bar. It's also a way to have a lot of substitutions filed against you.
Third, some judges may wrongheadedly (at least in my opinion) believe that prison is simply not appropriate for people who drink and drive. The problem is that this results in habitual drunks simply continuing to drink and drive and ultimately killing or severely injuring someone. When this inevitably happens, the chronic drunk finally goes to prison for a lengthy period of time - while his or her victim goes to the emergency room or the morgue!
The unfortunate reality is that the courthouse crowd will never change of its own volition. Judges serve six year terms and the public has a short memory when it comes to soft sentences. More to the point though, sitting judges almost always run unopposed. In other words, change won't come from the inside.
Here's what should happen to solve the problem.
The Legislature should require that anyone convicted of fifth offense drunk driving be sentenced to serve a term of at least one year in prison without eligibility for early release. No probation, no imposed and stayed sentence, no work release! At least one year in prison - period. If a judge wants to impose a greater sentence because he or she feels the facts warrant it - fine. Nothing less than a year though.
I can't guarantee you that a one year mandatory mimimum prison sentence will stop all chronic drunks from driving. It would however protect society from them for the time that they're behind bars. It would also send a strong message to people who might be inclined to drink and drive that there will be consequences for their actions.
In a perfect world, all judges would do the right thing and you wouldn't need mandatory minmimum sentencing. Unfortunately, several judges have demonstrated that they are incapable of doing the right thing. As such, to an extent at least, it's appropriate to take matters out of their hands.
I've singled out Milwaukee County because the newspaper did. Unfortunately, I don't think the results would be too much different if we looked at sentencing patterns of judges in other counties around the State as well.
When chronic drivers kill or injure someone else (as they frequently do), I believe that the judge who put them in the position to get behind the wheel bears some responsibility. That's not much consolation to surviving family members of the victims though. Therefore, we need to wake up.
Candidly, given the philospical makeup of the present Wisconsin Legislature, it's probably unlikely that we'll see much movement towards a meaningful toughening of the laws. That's too bad - because some judges insist on protecting habitual drunks and we shouldn't let them get away with it any longer!