MINNEAPOLIS (AP) -- Beginning Thursday, Minnesota's drivers could face hard time in prison if they get a fourth or subsequent drunken-driving offense in 10 years.
The new felony offense is a big change for a state where drunken driving has always been a misdemeanor or gross misdemeanor punishable by no more than a year in a county jail and a fine, no matter how many times the offense was repeated.
But public outrage at chronic drunken drivers with double-digit offense records pushed the Legislature and Gov. Jesse Ventura to up the ante, ending years of concern over the fiscal and social costs of imprisoning perhaps thousands of problem drinkers.
County attorneys in Ramsey, Anoka and Dakota counties are already beefing up their prosecution staffs to handle new caseloads. And prison officials are planning how to lock up and offer treatment to a new kind of state convict.
Whatever the cost, advocates of the crackdown say, it's worth it to try to stem the toll of hundreds of alcohol-related traffic deaths in Minnesota each year.
"It will act as a deterrent," said Bonnie LaBatt, executive director of the Mothers Against Drunk Driving Minnesota office. "People will make alternative plans for their personal transportation if they've had a history of drunken driving and they're smart."
She noted that people convicted of felonies not only may go to prison, but also may lose job opportunities as well as rights to vote and possess guns.
At least 39 other states impose felony penalties on chronic drunken drivers, and LaBatt said those laws have helped reduce the problem. "It's one of the many tools," she said. "Nothing has been the one cure-all."
About 387,000 Minnesotans have drunken-driving convictions, including more than 80,000 with three or more.
State sentencing guidelines suggest that first-time drunken-driving felons get penalties similar to those now in force -- probation, a few months in jail, fines and treatment. In most cases, only a subsequent offense would trigger prison time, and even then it would be up to a sentencing judge.
Other states with such felony laws haven't overcrowded their prisons with drunken drivers, said Dennis Benson, Minnesota's deputy corrections commissioner. Drunken drivers will begin their terms with processing and evaluation at the St. Cloud prison, Benson said, then most will be sent to the Faribault minimum/medium-security prison.
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