Yellowstone County Attorney Scott Twito says a new state law could hamper prosecutors’ ability to get dangerous drivers off the street.
House Bill 133, which was part of a criminal justice reform package, changed the state’s persistent felony offender laws so that in order to receive the designation now, a person must be on a third — not second — felony within five years, and one of those felonies must be for a violent or sexual offense. Prosecutors use a persistent felony offender status to argue for a longer sentence, especially in cases when DUI offenders failed treatment programs.
“It essentially eliminated a prosecutor’s authority to use PFO on the serious repeat DUI offender,” he said. That poses a threat to public safety.
“What you see with these repeat offenders, the most dangerous people, is they just don’t stop drinking and driving,” he said.
State officials had earlier made “tremendous strides” in making DUI laws tougher, Twito said.
For instance, a law the state passed in 2013 allows judges to look back 10 years, instead of the previously allowed five years, to add earlier DUI offenses to a person’s tally when sentencing. A DUI could count as a person’s first if more than 10 years have lapsed since an earlier DUI conviction.
Drunken driving fatalities are down in Yellowstone County, another marker of progress, Twito said.
The bill’s sponsor, Rep. Nate McConnell, D-Missoula, said the bill wasn’t intended to provide a “get-out-of-jail-free card,” but as a way to address jail overcrowding and budget concerns.
“We have too many people incarcerated within the system and that costs the taxpayer a lot of money,” McConnell said. “We have a serious budget problem in our state right now.”
McConnell stressed that the bill received bipartisan support, including from members from Yellowstone County like Sen. Roger Webb, R-Billings, and Rep. Barry Usher, R-Billings. The measure passed 37-12 in the Senate and 90-10 in the House, and took effect July 1.
McConnell is a DUI defense attorney, among other areas he specializes in at his Missoula law office.
“What we need to be doing, instead of spending a bunch of taxpayer dollars for putting guys in (the Montana State Prison), is funding successful, proven programs like WATCh,” a state treatment program, McConnell said.