HELENA — A bill increasing penalties for repeat DUI offenses is one step closer to becoming law after a Friday vote in the House of Representatives.

House Bill 115, sponsored by Rep. Bill Mercer, R-Billings, would increase fines and jail time for fifth and subsequent DUI convictions -- up to $10,000 and 25 years in prison for a seventh conviction. The House voted to accept amendments from the Senate on a 73-27 vote, meaning the bill faces one more vote before heading to Gov. Greg Gianforte’s desk.

During a House debate on the bill in February, Mercer positioned the bill as a way to prevent drunken drivers who reach their fifth or sixth DUI convictions from potentially harming people on the road. He added that while repeat offences are less and less likely each time a person is cited for driving under the influence, those who reach five or six convictions aren’t likely to stop. 

“As you’re going door to door and talking to constituents, one of the things that is most shocking to them is the fact that people who have an eighth or a ninth or tenth DUI don’t appear to have ever served any time in a prison,” Mercer said. “And, I’m sure they have said to you as they’ve said to me, ‘This is among the most dangerous cohorts in the state, and it doesn’t seem that the justice system deals with them very well.’”

Rep. Fiona Nave, R-Columbus, voted for the bill and said during a floor debate in February that increased penalties help until an offender is ready for treatment.

“In the meantime, we have to keep these people off the road so we can maintain our safety,” Nave said.

Rep. Robert Farris-Olsen voted against the bill and said during a floor debate that repeat DUI offenses are already decreasing.

“Our treatment system that we have in place is working now. We don’t need to expend these costs to place more people in prison,” Farris-Olsen said.

Data from Responsibility.org, an drunken driving awareness and prevention group, reports that 79 people died in Montana in crashes with alcohol-impaired drivers in 2018. The data also shows 7.4 people in every 100,000 in Montana die in crashes with alcohol-impaired drivers -- more than the nationwide average of 3.2 in 100,000. Additionally, 43% of fatal crashes with alcohol as a factor involved repeat DUI offenders in 2018 -- the nationwide rate was 25.4%.

Democratic opponents of the bill have said HB 115 won’t solve Montana’s drunken driver problem, arguing that increased mandatory minimums focus on “retributive” actions, and that the state should be focused on treatment. Farris-Olsen also said he feared the bill would have a “disparate impact” on Native American communities.

“Native American populations in this state make up 6.5% of the population, yet they’re about 20%–25% of the prison population, and a lot of that is because we don’t provide the resources that those communities need,” Farris-Olsen said. “If we pass bills like this one, it just furthers that systemic problem of treating those communities disparately.”

Under the bill, individuals with a fifth DUI conviction would be fined between $5,000–$10,000 and be sentenced to up to 10 years in prison. Previously, a fifth offense could lead to not more than 5 years in prison.

The bill also adds new sentencing guidelines for sixth and seventh DUI convictions. After six offenses, a person could face up to $10,000 in fines and 25 years in prison, while a seventh offence would mean up to $10,000 in fines and at least five years and not more than 25 years in prison.