MATT GOURAS Associated Press Writer HELENA
Lawmakers looking at stiffer drunken driving penalties were told Friday that cracking down on repeat offenders earlier could be costly and difficult when state finances are strapped amid the economic downturn. A problem with repeat drunken driving offenses has prompted the Law and Justice Interim Committee to evaluate a crackdown with new laws, programs or treatment. The panel is looking at ideas to bring to the full Legislature. The Department of Corrections reported that one idea to make a third drunken driving offense a felony i n s t e a d o f waiting until the fourth as the law is now would cost the agency as much $3 million through increased commitments to the state prison, more forced enrollment in the treatment program and more offenders to monitor after release. The agency told the panel that getting more offenders into its rehabilitation program sooner with tougher DUI laws would probably reduce repeat offenses. But the Department of Corrections said the administration is not advocating any such changes. Corrections Department Director Mike Ferriter said the administration is still months away from making budget recommendations for the Legislature, scheduled to convene in January 2011. But he said everyone recognizes money will be tight. "Program expansions will clearly be a difficult thing to move forward," Ferriter said after meeting with the legislative panel. Sen. Jim Shockley, R-Victor, said he Thinks a tight budget will not allow big changes in state drunken driving laws. Increased enforcement, imprisonment or treatment all come with a price tag. "I think we can tweak it, but there is no money to do something significant," he said. "I think we should do it, I just don't know how we get the money." Shockley said he does not favor the notion of making a third offense a felony. It may be better instead to simply order some of the earlier offenders into the treatment program. T h e D e p a r t m e n t o f Corrections said DUI offenders make up 12 percent of its population. As of October, it had 1,800 felony DUI offenders either jailed, in treatment or under DOC supervision. Rep. David Howard, R-Park City, said the increased cost should not be the prime issue. He said earlier treatment proven to reduce repeat offenses will save the lives of victims. "The victims that get killed or maimed, what's the cost there?" He said. "I think in this discussion, we should think about the victims, because what would government be if we were only thinking of the cost, and not the cost of the victim."