MADISON, Wis. — Wisconsinites who face charges for being involved with a drug overdose death will now face tougher penalties and could be behind bars for up to 60 years instead of 40 years.

The inspiration for the legislation, which garnered bipartisan support, came from Cade Reddington. Reddington passed away in his University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee dorm at age 18 after taking what he thought was a Percocet but turned out to be 100% fentanyl.

Reddington’s story has inspired change when it comes to how drug-related deaths are charged in Wisconsin.

What You Need To Know

  • Last week, Gov. Tony Evers signed a bipartisan bill to increase the penalty for first-degree reckless homicide involving drugs from a Class C felony to a Class B felony

  • The legislation was inspired by a UW-Milwaukee student who died in his dorm after taking what he thought was a Percocet but turned out to be fentanyl

  • Wisconsinites convicted of being involved with a drug overdose death could now be behind bars for up to 60 years instead of 40 years

“It’s a real situation,” State Rep. Scott Allen, R-Waukesha, explained. “It’s not just something you read about in the newspaper or see on the news. It’s real, and it’s happening to people all over.”

Rep. Allen, who worked on the legislation in the Assembly, watched the bill cross the finish line last week when Gov. Tony Evers signed it into law.

The story of fentanyl poisoning hit close to home for Rep. Allen, who also attended UW-Milwaukee at the same time as Reddington’s father. Upon doing some research, he discovered that first-degree reckless homicide deaths from drug overdoses were treated differently than every other reckless homicide.

Reddington at high school graduation. (Michelle Kullmann)

“So, upon conviction, the sentencing standards would be different for those individuals as a Class B versus reckless homicide by drug overdose was treated as a Class C felony,” Rep. Allen said. “Much lesser in terms of sentencing. In fact, the sentencing for a Class C felony, the minimum sentencing is simply just a fine.”

Though Gov. Evers said he was glad to sign the bill, now Wisconsin Act 29, he said he still wants lawmakers to do more to combat the crisis.

“Far too many Wisconsinites have lost their lives or loved ones to opioids and other harmful substances, and we must do everything we can to stop these tragedies and invest in efforts to treat substance use across our state,” Gov. Evers said in a statement. “Wisconsin has seen a staggering number of opioid-related deaths in recent years, and I continue to be concerned about the role fentanyl and other synthetic opioids have played in this epidemic. While I was glad to sign this bipartisan bill, I also encourage members of the Legislature to reconsider some of my substance use treatment and prevention proposals that they stripped from the last budget so we can build upon this important work.”

Rep. Allen acknowledged that stiffer penalties won't totally solve the problem. However, with the rise of counterfeit pills, he said education efforts are needed now more than ever.

Gov. Tony Evers signs 2023 Wisconsin Act 29. (Office of Gov. Evers)

“Like in the case of Cade, he thought he was getting a Percocet to have a certain effect, and it turned out it was laced with fentanyl and killed him, so the bottom-line is, don’t trust anybody,” Rep. Allen added. “Make no mistake about it, we definitely need to do something on the severity side, so I say woe to the merchants of death, woe to those who are dealing drugs, because we’re coming after you, and we’re going to put you behind bars and keep you off the streets.”

Class C felonies are punishable by a fine of up to $100,000, up to 40 years in prison, or both. A Class B felony, on the other hand, is punishable by up to 60 years behind bars, which makes it a tougher penalty that lawmakers hope will deter drug dealers.