The Rock County Criminal Justice Coordinating Council got what seemed like good news Thursday.
The council received a grant that would allow the county to expand its intoxicated driving treatment court program to serve those charged with fourth and fifth offenses, said Kelly Mattingly, a local public defender who heads the council.
Currently, the treatment court works with those convicted of third-offense intoxicated driving.
But Mattingly said the hoped-for expansion of OWI treatment court hit a snag because of a change in state law.
“Unfortunately, not unlike the weather in Wisconsin, if you don’t like the OWI laws in Wisconsin, wait a minute,” he said. “Because they are certain to change.”
State Department of Justice officials on Oct. 19 released an interpretation of Act 106, which increased the mandatory minimum penalty for a conviction of fifth-offense OWI and now requires at least 18 months—and in some cases one year—in prison.
An assistant attorney general wrote in the email to local prosecutors that courts, under the law, cannot impose the required sentence and stay it before placing a defendant on probation, which would allow the defendant to participate in treatment court.
So, the council on Thursday supported a resolution that would recommend changing Act 106 so those convicted of fifth-offense OWI can still participate in treatment court. The council might need to vote on a resolution’s exact language at its next meeting.
The council also supported eliminating a part of the law concerning some fourth-offense intoxicated driving convictions that calls for a lifetime revocation of driving privileges if a defendant completes treatment court.
Rock County Justice System Manager Elizabeth Pohlman McQuillen said an email from a Marathon County official went out to try to get the laws changed. She also said La Crosse County was “interested in advocating for change.”
“This is not just an issue that is affecting Rock County,” she said. “Especially for those programs that are only serving those felony-level OWIs (fourth and above), they’re really fearing that their program will be completely gutted.”
In 2018, there were 33 fourth- and fifth-offense OWI convictions in Rock County, according to data from the district attorney’s office. That was the most recent data immediately available during the meeting Thursday.
Most of the funding from the grant the county received would be used to fund another dually credentialed master’s-level therapist to have a caseload of up to 15 people at once, Pohlman McQuillen said.
The council next meets at 3 p.m. Jan. 21.