Assembly Approves Increased Penalties For Illegal Gun Purchases, Drunken Driving

Friday, February 23, 2018 | By Laurel White l WPR |

(WPR) The Wisconsin Assembly approved a number of criminal justice proposals Thursday, including a bill to allow teachers to terminate their contracts if assaulted on the job and measures to crack down on illegal gun purchases and drunken driving.

The Assembly took up the measures on what is expected to be their final day of voting in 2018.

Teacher Contract Change

Under the bill, which its GOP sponsors call the "Teacher Protection Act," teachers who are physically assaulted or are victims of another violent crime at school would be allowed to terminate their contracts without penalty.

The plan passed with a 58-36 vote.

State Rep. James Edming, R-Glen Flora, and Rep. Nancy VanderMeer, R-Tomah, joined Democrats in voting against the bill.

It has yet to be heard in the state Senate.

"Assaults on teachers are on the rise, and Wisconsin is no exception," said Rep. Jeremy Thiesfeldt, R-Fond du Lac, the bill’s sponsor.

Thiesfeldt argued the change would help with teacher recruitment and retention.

"This is a problem we must solve," he said.

Critics argued the measure is a "solution in search of a problem" and would lead to more teachers, particularly special education teachers, leaving their classrooms.

"The policy would exacerbate an already existing teacher shortage," said Rep. Sondy Pope, D-Mt. Horeb. "The last thing we need to do is give teachers another reason to abandon Wisconsin and their teaching profession."

The bill was significantly pared down during the legislative process.

An earlier version of the bill also included measures to require law enforcement to share information about students' criminal records with schools and empower teachers to remove students from their classroom for up to two days without permission from their school’s administration.

Teachers, school administrators, and disability rights groups all voiced opposition to those measures, arguing they would compromise the relationship between teachers and administrators and disproportionately affect students with disabilities.

Addressing District Attorney Shortage, Prison Borrowing

Assembly lawmakers also approved a plan that would provide $4 million in state funding to hire about 53 new prosecutors in 40 counties across Wisconsin.

The measure passed with a vote of 59-35. Rep. Adam Jarchow, R-Balsam Lake, joined Democrats in voting against the bill.  

It now moves to the state Senate.

Assembly Republicans introduced the proposal on Wednesday, saying it would help address a shortage of prosecutors statewide.

"We have to ensure justice is swift, justice is certain," said Rep. John Nygren, R-Marinette. "The swiftness of our punishment does matter."

Some critics of the measure, including Rep. Evan Goyke, D-Milwaukee, argued funding is also needed to address a shortage of public defenders in the state.

"If you add to one side of the ledger, you had to add to the other," said Goyke.

Under the bill, counties that have less than 79 percent of recommended staffing levels for district attorneys will get funding to hire more. Dane and Milwaukee counties would not qualify because they exceed the 79 percent recommended staffing levels, another point of contention for Democrats.

"You cannot say you're tough on crime and exclude your two biggest cities," said Rep. Chris Taylor, D-Madison.

The funding for additional district attorneys was part of a bill to revoke parole, extended supervision, and probation for repeat offenders.

The bill also includes $350 million in borrowing to build a new prison in Wisconsin, a move Democrats also criticized.

"This is fiscally foolish," said Rep. Peter Barca, D-Kenosha. "Let’s not go down this road."

Assembly Speaker Robin Vos, R-Rochester, said earlier in the week the borrowing could also be used to help complete the conversion of the Lincoln Hills and Copper Lake youth corrections facility into an adult prison, if that change is approved by the state Senate and signed by Gov. Scott Walker.

Gun 'Straw Buyer' Crackdown

The Assembly also approved a bill to crack down on people who buy guns for individuals legally barred from owning them, a practice known as "straw buying."

The bill passed on a voice vote. Under the plan, someone who engages in straw buying could be fined up to $25,000 and imprisoned for up to 10 years.

The proposal now moves to Gov. Scott Walker’s desk for his signature.

Alcohol Sales And Drunken Driving

Lawmakers also approved a measure to increase penalties on drunken drivers.

Under the proposal, someone who is convicted of their fourth drunken driving offense will have their driver's license revoked. Revocations would also apply to individuals who commit two drunken driving offenses and two other OWI-related crimes.

The bill passed with a vote of 84-10.

As lawmakers passed the measure to crack down on intoxicated drivers, they also made a move to allow wineries in Wisconsin to stay open until midnight. Current law requires them to close by 9 p.m.

That bill passed on a voice vote. It now moves to the state Senate.

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