Wisconsin’s Drinking Culture Comes With A Multi-Billion Dollar Price Tag

2013 Report Claims Excessive Drinking Cost State $6.8B

alcohol cost graphic

On a Friday late in March, a dozen or so people were waiting for afternoon proceedings to begin in Courtroom 615 in the Milwaukee County Circuit Court building. They were attorneys, defendants, court staff.

One defendant, unable to find child care, sat with her toddler in her lap.

Another’s boyfriend was there to lend support.

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As Judge David Borowski began hearing cases, the costs related to their offenses started piling up.

There were $350 fines for two women pleading guilty to drunken driving, known legally as operating while intoxicated or OWI, plus costs, fees and surcharges for the nights they’d spend in county jail, tests they might undergo and more.

There were the hourly charges for their public defenders, the costs for the screenings and treatment Borowski ordered and the wages the defendants may have lost taking time off of work to come to court.

A man pleading guilty to resisting an officer and disorderly conduct stemming from an incident that happened when he was turned away from a homeless shelter while drunk, was ordered to undergo treatment and to check in daily at the Milwaukee County Day Reporting Center.

Another man appeared before Borowski in handcuffs, coming from the Milwaukee County House of Corrections to request a modification to his sentence.

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The costs associated with his second OWI offense were much higher than he expected they would be. His employer didn’t complete all of the steps necessary for him to be released for work during his sentence and he lost his job. He was able to find another position, but working only 15 to 20 hours a week and at a much lower wage.

“So his ability to pay his fine has come up,” said Robert Gordon, his attorney. “I think it’s appropriate to consider the amount because the court indicated he has a good job and can pay, but unfortunately he no longer has a good job.”

Law enforcement agencies in Milwaukee County made 2,984 arrests for drunken driving alone in 2018, according to data from the Wisconsin Department of Justice. Cases like these are familiar to Borowski and his colleagues on the Milwaukee County Circuit Court.

“Of course, the problem is not just in Wisconsin, but in Milwaukee we have a serious, serious problem with drinking and driving,” Borowski told one defendant as he considered her sentencing. “There’s rarely a day, if ever, that goes by where someone isn’t arrested and charged with driving while intoxicated … the next thing that happens is that almost weekly or every other week, someone is killed due to reckless driving.”