One of the reasons this country is a financial wreck is because Congresses and presidents of both parties have failed to weigh the cost of the laws they pass against the cost.
Start a war or two? Put it on the old credit card. Medicare prescription drug benefit? No problem. More federal "aid" for any and every program? We're America ? we'll pay it back.
So it's refreshing to see the debate over toughening Wisconsin's drunken driving laws also includes a discussion of the cost of hiring more prosecutors, judges, jailers and building more lockups at an estimated annual cost of $250 million, according to a recent story in the Wisconsin State Journal.
Six bills have been introduced in Madison to put more drunken drivers in jail or prison, and to keep them locked up for longer periods. The state Department of Corrections estimates the state would have to build an additional 17 facilities with 300 beds each at a cost of $236 million to handle the projected influx of inmates. The State Journal story said that doesn't include the additional capacity that would be needed at county jails to handle additional prisoners serving terms of under a year.
The bills' sponsors claim those numbers may be inflated because the deterrent effect of the new laws would reduce the number of OWI arrests from current levels. That's possible, but anecdotal evidence seems to indicate that the worst of the worst drunken drivers aren't scared off after one or two convictions, regardless of the penalties.
Wisconsin's drinking culture is well-documented. Studies show we have the highest incidence of drunken driving in the nation, the Wisconsin State Journal reports. Last year there were 5,297 crashes, 225 deaths and nearly 3,000 injuries in crashes involving drunken drivers.
As disturbing as those numbers are, they have been steadily declining. More people are getting the message that drunken driving isn't a laughing matter. Drive by area bars on a Saturday or Sunday morning and you'll likely see vehicles left from the night before. Rather than drive home, more people are calling cabs or making other arrangements.
Attacking the problem on the front end with continued public awareness, bartender training, peer pressure, ignition interlocks, Safe Ride programs and taxi rides don't cost taxpayers.
But it's important when people say we can't afford not to further load our prisons to remind them that the $250 million per year isn't money that falls out of the sky. That's $250 million less for schools, roads, etc.
Many of those who want to spend that $250 million are the same people who would scream to high heaven if other public programs are slashed as a result.
Even some anti-drunken driving groups say it may be better to spend more on alcohol treatment to try to keep otherwise good people from ruining their lives and possibly someone else's, because locking them up without treating them is only a temporary solution.