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repeat offenders

In Montana, the first three DUI convictions are misdemeanors and most offenders don’t ever reach the felony stage with four or more convictions. Unfortunately, felony DUI is still all too common. The Yellowstone County Attorneys Office filed 94 felony DUI cases in 2016 and 73 in 2017.

What’s to be done with those incorrigible offenders? They keep drinking excessively and driving dangerously.

A change in state law last year restricted courts and prosecutors from seeking lengthier sentences for offenders convicted of five or more DUIs. Present law requires the first felony conviction (which is actually the fourth DUI conviction) to include a six-month addiction and impaired driving treatment program. These WATcH programs are in Department of Corrections secure buildings at Warm Springs and Glendive. After that, the fourth-time DUI offender could be on probation for up to two years.

But if he fails to abstain from drunken driving and gets a fifth conviction, the potential penalties will be less than they were for the fourth conviction.

Billings Gazette readers have seen headlines about 6th, 7th, 8th, even 10th DUI convictions. The relatively few offenders who don’t benefit from treatment or other inducements to follow the law need to be taken off the road. Courts need proper tools to do that.

One provision in a 63-page bill that reformed Montana’s criminal justice system last year took away the District Court’s option of designating repeat felony DUI offenders as “persistent felony offenders,” a status that allows for a longer sentence. The law was changed so that only felons whose crimes involved violence or sex crimes can be designated “persistent” and sentenced accordingly.

As the law is written now, punishment for subsequent felony DUIs is less than that for the first felony DUI. That doesn’t make sense. The sentencing provision fails to reflect the fact that multiple-felony DUI offenders have failed to change despite intensive treatment specifically for addicts who drive while impaired.

Yellowstone County Attorney Scott Twito and other county attorneys lobbied against the persistent felony offender change during the 2017 Legislature. The Montana County Attorneys Association has made reversing last year’s change a priority for the 2019 Legislature.

Twito has drafted a proposed change that would increase the possible sentence length for fifth and subsequent convictions. His proposal would allow judges to sentence repeat felony DUI offenders up to 10 years on a fifth offense and to require that the offender actually has to serve at least three years. Six-time and subsequent offenses could garner sentences of up to 25 years with the offender required to serve at least five.

Longer prison sentences must be carefully considered. Does the public safety interest outweigh the individual’s loss of freedom and the taxpayers’ expense for incarceration? In the case of habitual DUI offenders, the answer is yes. Twito is targeting the worst of the worst — individuals who persist in driving drunk after failing addiction treatment.

The number of people killed on Montana roads in crashes with alcohol-impaired drivers has been decreasing gradually as the state enacted tougher DUI laws. Let’s not backtrack.

Shorter sentences can help balance the state budget and ease prison crowding. But at what cost? For habitual offenders who put public safety at risk every time they drive, there may be no better alternative.

When big, complex legislation becomes law, it often needs some tweaks to remedy unintended consequences. The reduction in repeat felony DUI penalties should be reversed in 2019.