After years of debate, lawmakers require prison for driving drunk and killing someone

MADISON, Wis. (WBAY) - The Wisconsin Senate voted on nearly 50 bills Tuesday, including one that has come before lawmakers repeatedly over the last several years but has never made it as far as it did this year.

Assembly Bill 17 creates a mandatory prison sentence of at least 5 years for a drunk driver who kills someone other than his or her passenger.

We first told you about the push by families to change the law in investigative stories back in 2015, but the problem has outraged victims' families for years.

Those families now believe their years of persistence finally grabbed lawmakers' attention with senators voting unanimously to pass the bill Tuesday evening.

"I get infuriated when people try to put a price on a life. There is no price!"

That's what Liz Thorne told the Senate Committee on Judiciary and Public Safety in September.

Thorne's emotions are just as raw now as they were when her son, Dillon was hit and killed by a drunk driver in 2012.

It took three years for the Waupaca County woman who hit him to be sentenced, only to receive what Dillon's family called a slap on the wrist.

She was sentenced to one year in jail.

"My family and my other son... we live through hell every day," says Thorne.

Since then, she and countless other families with loved ones killed by drunk drivers who've seen similar jail or prison sentences have trekked to Madison, testifying before multiple committees, begging lawmakers to make a change.

"I just pray that a light will go off and you'll open up and say we need to do something for these families," Thorne told the committee.

Current law imposes a mandatory maximum of 25 years in prison with no prior convictions, but it's up to a judge to decide how short the sentence is.

This bill imposing a mandatory minimum sentence of five years in prison passed the Assembly earlier this year.

Tuesday's vote before the Senate is something Thorne was not sure she'd ever see.

She wrote us in an email, "For (three) years we waited for justice and because there was no mandatory minimum, we received no justice. Not that (five) years is enough, but at least it's more than a little inconvenience for the convicted person."

She continued, "I'm actually surprised that any bill for OWI has gotten this far. That's why I have hope!"

The bill does give a judge the ability to impose a sentence shorter than five years, but the judge must submit the reason in writing.

The bill now heads to the governor's desk.

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