HELENA – Lawmakers preparing to look at a long list of DUI proposals were told Monday that juveniles who kill while driving drunk in some cases should be tried as adults.
Rep. Janna Taylor of Dayton told the House Judiciary Committee that her Bill 18 would let prosecutors try juveniles as adults for vehicular homicide while under the influence.
She said prosecutors are currently getting around the problem by trying extreme cases in which drunk minors kill others in a crash with a reduced charge of negligent homicide.
Supporters of the bill argue it is better to try minors for an alcohol-related crime that forces more treatment in the juvenile justice system.
“We want to emphasize that for this 16- or 17-year-old who has committed this horrible crime, it is important that that person face appropriate consequences,” said Rebecca Sturdevant of Mothers Against Drunk Drivers. “If you are tried as a juvenile, it is a do-over.”
The county attorneys association said there are just a few such cases a year where a juvenile would face the tougher charge allowing a penalty of up to 30 years.
Opponents argued that putting vulnerable youngsters into an adult corrections system leaves them at greater risk.
“It is very questionable whether laws like these would have a deterrent effect,” said Niki Zupanic of the ACLU of Montana. “We are now piling on more and more crimes and pushing more and more juveniles into an adult corrections system.”
Gov. Brian Schweitzer vetoed a similar bill in 2009. He said at the time he didn’t like the idea of charging those under 18 as adults for a crime that may result from negligence rather than intent. He said such juveniles obviously made bad decisions but may not be bad kids.
Both House and Senate judiciary committees will meet together for two days on Wednesday and Thursday to look over about 20 bills that aim to crack down on drunk driving and to take public comment on the issue.
The measures stiffen some penalties, make it easier for authorities prosecuting the crimes, and take other actions. One, for instance, provides a way for police to get a warrant at all hours to take a blood test from those who refuse a breath test.
The whole package could be a big issue for lawmakers this year after drunk driving crimes appear to have taken a higher profile in the state.
“There are a lot of people that are very focused on DUIs and doing something about it,” Sturdevant said.
Stay Connected with the Daily Roundup.
Sign up for our newsletter and get the best of the Beacon delivered every day to your inbox.