Tougher DUI legislation draws support from both parties, but can it draw money?

By Anthony Bowe
THE COLORADO STATESMAN

Colorado DUI accidents resulting in death dipped in 2009, and two state lawmakers are aiming to sustain that pattern.

Rep. Cory Gardner, R-Yuma, and Rep. Claire Levy, D-Boulder, will introduce competing legislation this year that would stiffen penalties for those repeatedly arrested for driving under the influence.

State Transportation Department spokeswoman Heather Halpape said the number of alcohol-related driving deaths in 2009 appeared to be on the decline from 2008 to late last year, but statistics aren’t final. What’s alarming, Halpape said, is the rate at which DUI drivers are involved in fatal accidents.

Over the past several years, she said, drunken drivers have been involved in about 40 percent of fatal car accidents in Colorado.

“I think it’s actually something we should have done a long time ago, but I’m glad we’re doing it now,” said House Speaker Terrance Carroll on the session’s legislation. “I suspect (legislation) will go through with strong bipartisan support, and it will allow us to really crack down on repeat DUI offenders who seem to act without any regard for anyone else’s life.”

The measures differ in how they penalize repeat offenders, but both would install mandatory DUI sentencing laws across the state.

Levy’s bill would require second-time offenders whose second offense occurs within three years of a first conviction to be sentenced to a mandatory minimum of 10 days in jail. Third-time offenders would get 60 days. Two years probation would follow each offense, and judges would demand that offenders enroll in alcohol-treatment programs, install ignition-locking devices in their cars or obey other requirements. Offenders with a second conviction more than three years after their first conviction would be eligible for home detention or work release.

“There is too much inconsistency,” Levy said about DUI sentencing. “We need to take a tougher approach to repeat offenders because they put everyone at risk.”

Gardner, on the other hand, plans to make multiple DUI offenses a felony. It hasn’t been determined whether a felony charge would be triggered by the second or the third offense. Those details were still being worked out Tuesday afternoon, Gardner said.

“I’m going back and forth with law enforcement officials to draft a bill to accomplish what we’re trying to do, and that is to keep people off the streets when they’ve had a DUI,” Gardner said.

“Representative Gardner and Rep. Levy share the same goal of making sure repeat drunk drivers will see the inside of a jail cell. Period. Where we disagree with Rep. Gardner is that we know that our state must live within our means,” Carroll stressed. “Rep. Levy’s bill will cost the state less while accomplishing the same goal.”

The Speaker added, “Levy’s bill would require mandatory jail time for offenders. The sentence would significantly increase for third and subsequent offenses. Currently judges have too much leeway on sentencing for repeat offenders.

“The urgency of the issue is that we have a clear message for Coloradoans: don’t drive drunk, or it'll cost you,” Carroll said. “As Democratic leaders, we are committed to both balancing our budget AND keeping our roads safe.”

Each bill’s passage is contingent on the same budget shortfalls haunting lawmakers and their constituencies in fiscal years 2010 and 2011.

Lawmakers struck down a similar bill to Gardner’s in 2008, citing a five-year, $107 million price tag.

A felony DUI conviction may also mean increased prison populations. Just last year Gov. Bill Ritter instituted a controversial early release program to relieve Department of Correction costs on the state budget.

To house the 23,144 people in Colorado prisons, it costs about $29,000 per inmate annually, for a total expenditure of more than $670 million last year. The Colorado Department of Corrections’ (DOC) impact on the General Fund jumped from 4 percent in 1990 to nearly 10 percent last year.

Gardner suggests re-evaluating thousands of state programs and recommending cuts to cover his legislation’s costs. Republican Sen. Greg Brophy, R-Wray, reflected that stance.

“Those are the hard decisions we have to make. I’ve been talking all along about reforming the way we do everything in government; about living within our means and addressing those areas of government that are growing rapidly,” Brophy said.

DOC spokeswoman Katherine Sanguinetti said state prison population growth has slowed and populations even decreased in the latter part of 2009.

Levy’s bill is inspiring some of the same questions as Gardner’s. Some county governments, bleeding red alongside the state’s budget shortfalls, have concerns about housing the repeat offenders.

“I would hope that Representative Levy will take into consideration the impact on local governments while we’re all struggling with budgets,” said El Paso County Commissioner Sallie Clark, whose district includes Colorado Springs. “We just can’t keep up if it’s going to be pushing down additional costs to us to house those offenders.”

Clark said each inmate costs a county jail about $65 to $70 per day. Clark said if Levy’s legislation would funnel state support funds to the counties, she could support it.

To create space in county jails, Levy said a provision in her bill would ease the sentences for people caught driving with a suspended license, as long as alcohol wasn’t involved. Instead of a mandatory five-day sentence, Levy would allow judges to use discretion in sentencing.

“What I’m told is that jails are full of people serving their five-day sentence,” Levy said. “So, by making that discretionary, I think we can free up some of the burden on the jails.”

Despite county-level concerns, the Colorado Sheriffs of Colorado (CSOC) have endorsed Levy’s legislation. CSOC unanimously voted to support similar sentencing guidelines two weeks ago.

“We know that mandatory sentences will have an impact on our already crowded jails,” said Arapahoe County Sheriff Grayson Robinson, who chairs the CSOC. “However, we also believe that a mandatory sentence of some nature is an investment in public safety, and so we are supportive of that investment for the long haul, and we’re willing to deal with the short-term costs.”

Robinson said county sheriffs would consider out-of-county inmate placements to jails with more space, if Levy’s bill eventually passes.

“We’ll have to take it on a county-by-county basis,” the sheriff said. “There are some jails that have space. Others are experiencing crowding. However, each of the sheriffs will take steps that are consistent with their local issues to assure that there’s adequate space.”

Levy’s bill may have an inside track to passage, thanks to her membership on the Commission on Criminal and Juvenile Justice. Ritter created the CCJJ in 2007 to make criminal-sentencing recommendations to the governor and Legislature.

In December of last year, the commission failed to advance similar DUI sentencing laws it had unanimously supported only a month earlier. The commission will vote on recommending Levy’s bill on Feb. 20.

Levy said she will continue to pursue the DUI bill with or without the commission’s endorsement.

Gardner and Levy both believe mandatory DUI sentences can curb DUI accidents and deaths. However, they also agree that incarceration won’t solve the underlying problems of substance abuse and addiction.

“I think jail time alone will not change anything,” she said. “But jail time coupled with much more pervasive use of ignition-interlock devices, coupled with requirements for alcohol treatment — together, I hope, will dramatically reduce the incidence of drunk driving in Colorado,” Levy said.

Gardner said he would make certain alcohol classes and rehabilitation programs mandatory for repeat offenders.

Many in the Legislature, including Levy and Gardner, agree that stiffer DUI law transcends party lines.

“I look forward to working with [Rep. Levy],” Gardner said. “Again, this is not a Republican or Democrat issue. This is an issue that really affects people’s lives, and we need to figure out which bill can pass, and make it happen.”

Anthony@coloradostatesman.com