On a list of the top crimes that men are convicted of committing in Montana, felony DUI ranks higher than any other offense except drug possession. Felony DUI is No. 6 on the top-convictions list for women.
Between 1997 and 2009, 2,441 people were convicted in Montana of 3,008 felony DUI offenses. Every one of these felons had been convicted of DUI at least four times, and 491 of them had five or more DUI convictions.
Research conducted recently by a professor and students at the University of Montana indicates that habitual drunken drivers drive drunk hundreds of times for each time they are caught and convicted. The researchers’ conservative estimate based on interviews with convicts was 369 times driving drunk for each conviction.
This estimate helps illustrate the enormous threat to public safety from repeat DUI offenders.
On today’s front page, The Billings Gazette presents the final installment in a four-Sunday series about DUI in Montana. In one of today’s stories, The Gazette State Bureau notes that DUI is a city or county problem for the first three misdemeanors and a state system problem only upon fourth offense, where the offender will be tried in a state court and, if convicted, sentenced to the state Department of Corrections.
Curbing repeat offenders
Thousands of felony DUI convictions show that the system is failing. The result is dangerously impaired drivers on Montana roads and enormous expenses for the taxpayers of Montana. It’s time for Montana to curb repeat DUI offenders before they become four-time (or worse) felony offenders.
According to information compiled by the Department of Corrections, last summer:
• 206 felony DUI offenders were in state prisons.
• 302 were in state-funded addiction treatment programs.
• 1,035 were on probation or parole.
One proven strategy for reducing DUI recidivism is through intensive drug treatment court programs. Billings and Kalispell launched the state’s first DUI treatment courts about a year and a half ago. But other DUI offenders were already succeeding in staying sober and employed in the Billings Municipal Drug Treatment Court, which has served addicts convicted of various misdemeanor offenses for more than five years. Justice courts in Missoula and Butte also are developing DUI treatment courts. The 7th Judicial District has established a DUI treatment court to serve Dawson, McCone, Prairie, Richland and Wibaux counties. Although treatment courts that have been operating for long enough to compile outcome statistics have documented significant success in keeping offenders in treatment and out of trouble, they are able to serve only a fraction of addicted offenders.
Not all DUI offenders need drug treatment court. About 80 percent of first-time DUI offenders will pay their fines, serve their sentences and not re-offend. That other 20 percent or so, however, will keep driving drunk. How can the justice system identify habitual drunken drivers earlier?
Montana prosecuting attorneys have suggested that great penalties be assessed for drivers with extremely high blood alcohol content. The consequences of committing such “aggravated” misdemeanor offenses should include mandatory addiction evaluation and treatment as recommended by a treatment professional. A key to effectively mandating treatment is ongoing follow-up to make sure the offender does what the court ordered him to do.
That’s what drug treatment courts do. Participants usually must appear before a judge weekly and explain any failures to attend treatment, AA meetings, appointments with probation officers and drug testing.
Billings Municipal Judge Mary Jane Knisely and Mona Sumner of Rimrock Foundation, which provides treatment for Billings treatment court participants, attended a meeting of the Legislature’s interim Law and Justice Committee in February and made a strong case for law changes that would allow treatment courts to work more effectively.
One key change would be to allow courts to have jurisdiction in all misdemeanor DUI cases for at least a year. The law now limits court supervision to six months in many cases — not enough time for addicts to complete the court treatment program.
A final sobering thought: The state’s felony DUI treatment program at Warm Springs has a special group just for drunken drivers who have been convicted of homicide in connection with their impaired driving. In its first two years, the group admitted 14 killers.