A resolution about changing an intoxicated-driving law was tabled during a meeting of Rock County criminal justice officials Thursday as two sides weighed treating defendants against protecting the public.
District Attorney David O’Leary was the main voice asking to hold off on the resolution, saying that he doesn’t think the Legislature would support a change to give some repeat intoxicated drivers access to treatment court if it comes with a lighter penalty.
He also said he was more interested in protecting the public from someone with a fifth intoxicated-driving conviction than he was in changing the law.
When it met in November, the county’s Criminal Justice Coordinating Council discussed a state Department of Justice interpretation of a mandatory minimum law for fifth-offense intoxicated drivers.
The law increased the minimum penalty for a fifth offense to 18 months in prison or one year in some cases. The reason it affects the council is because of what it means for the county’s intoxicated-driving treatment court.
The state’s interpreta- tion shared Oct. 19 said courts cannot impose the required sentence and stay it before placing a defendant on probation, which would allow the defendant to take part in treatment court.
So at its November meeting, the council said it would prepare a resolution to urge the state Legislature to change Act 106 to allow those convicted of fifth-offense OWI to still participate in treatment court.
Kelly Mattingly, a public defender who chairs the council, was again picked Thursday to chair the council for 2021.
He said the treatment options in prison don’t compare to the high standards of treatment courts.
“I think the purpose of this resolution is to, No. 1, recognize that treatment courts have been an effective tool in making society safer from both drug users and OWI (offenders),” he said.
“I know that you’re coming at it from a community caretaker point of view,” Mattingly said, responding to O’Leary. “Personally, I think that treatment courts are our best weapon (or) tool against repeat OWI offenders and repeat drug offenders, as well.”
O’Leary, the county’s top prosecutor, said he wants defendants to get treatment for their substance abuse problems. But he said he has been asked many times why a repeat intoxicated driver wasn’t locked up—especially after a crash that causes injuries or death.
“I’ve got to protect the community from this individual who—if you want to drink yourself to death, that’s fine—but when you make the decision to get behind the wheel of a car and hurl it down the road and potentially kill the next family that’s traveling down the road in the opposite direction, that’s when as a prosecutor I have to speak up and say there is a breaking point,” O’Leary said.
O’Leary said his patience is gone when it comes to intoxicated drivers accused of a fifth offense and more. He thinks shortening the prison term—rather than replacing it—can be an incentive for defendants to go after treatment court.
Both sides discussed if there was a way to fashion sentences to still allow for treatment court participation.
They agreed to postpone the matter until the Feb. 18 meeting so O’Leary and Mattingly can see if there’s a version of the resolution that covers O’Leary’s concerns.