Rep. Kris Hansen, R-Havre, overcame the odds Monday when the House of Representatives voted 57-43 to make a person's third driving-under-the-influence conviction a felony.
"When I first mentioned this, everyone told me there wasn't a chance," said Hansen, who sponsored the bill.
In addition to the usual opposition to stricter drunken driving laws, there was major concern about the cost.
The state Department of Corrections estimated that cost of the additional incarceration at $4.5 million, a bill that most lawmakers would automatically reject in these fiscally troubled times, Hansen said.
But Monday, the House voted 57-43 in favor of Hansen's bill. The session thus far has been marked by partisan votes, but Republicans and Democrats were on both sides of this issue.
It now faces a tough road in the House Appropriations Committee and the Senate, but Hansen said she is cautiously optimistic the bill will pass.
Presently, the fourth DUI conviction is a felony. The judge usually sentences offenders to a 13-month Watch program in which they receive close supervision. If they fail, they are sent to state prison.
Under Hansen's proposal, the judge would sentence offenders to a state prison term, but would suspend it if they agree to take part in a 24/7 supervision program.
The program would include a twice daily alcohol monitoring program.
The program was launched on a trial basis in Lewis & Clark County, and local officials have declared it a success.
Convinceted repeat drunken drivers have to report to a central location — usually the sheriff's office — where they are tested to see if they have any alcohol in their system. People who are found to be under the influence can be sent to prison, but Helena officials say that rarely happens.
Some people may be placed on SCRAM bracelets, which can determine if the offender has been drinking, she said.
Still, the Department of Corrections estimates there is a $2 million annual cost to the program, a number with which Hansen strongly disagrees.
DOC bases its figures on a pilot program in South Dakota. Initial reports were that nearly one in three of the South Dakota offenders failed the program and ended up in state prison.
But Hansen said final figures will indicate that between 1 and 8 percent of the offenders were shipped off to state prison, meaning the cost of incarceration was relatively low.
The program will involve additional work for sheriff's departments, she said.
Offenders must pay to be part of the program. The alcohol tests are $2 each or $4 a day, she said.
The SCRAM bracelets cost $10 a day.
In smaller counties, operating the program may be difficult, she said.
"But I'm confident the law enforcement officials can work something out," she said. She said the law will make highways safer at a relatively low cost, and will help solve the offender's major problems, which is alcohol addiction," she said.
Hansen said the measure passed the House Judiciary Committee 12-8, with an unusual coalition on Democrats and Republicans on both sides.
"The good part of it is that it makes our highways safer and allows the drivers to stay at home in the communities, in their jobs and their churches," she said.
Rep, Wendy Warburton, R-Havre, joined Hansen in voting for the program. Rep. Tony Belcourt, D-Box Elder, voted no.