New DUI Law Casts Harsh Light on Colorado Substance Abuse Treatment

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This August, after years of advocacy by victims of drunk drivers, Colorado’s new felony DUI standard went into effect. From this point forward, anyone convicted of a fourth DUI will face a felony charge, as well as two to six years in prison. In addition, drivers will be required to install an ignition interlock device after their second conviction. First-time offenders face a year-long license suspension and possible jail time of five days to one year.

“It gives somebody a chance to be successful on probation,” said Former House Minority Leader Mark Waller, who had previously fought for the bill. “The difference between going to prison and jail is huge. The point wasn’t to lock a bunch a people up and throw away the key, it was for people to have the incentive to get their life right.”

With more drunk drivers headed to Colorado prisons in coming years, some of the bill’s advocates are publicly questioning whether the state’s Department of Corrections has the ability to provide substance abuse treatment for prisoners. And the consensus, even by the DOC’s own reckoning, is that the state simply doesn’t have the resources to treat all the prisoners who need or want help with alcoholism and addiction.

At one recent parole hearing, a man convicted of killing a father and daughter in a DUI crash never received treatment for alcoholism, even after he asked for such classes. Jennifer Gray, the mother and wife of the victims, believes the state must do more.

“It made me really sad,” said Gray. “That he had not been given that chance or that he tried — wasn’t able to successfully complete classes…The one thing that I asked at [the driver’s] sentencing hearing was that he be given every chance to have rehabilitation.”

In an earlier version of the felony DUI bill, funds would have gone towards prisoner treatment programs, but that language was left out of the final version. And DOC spokeswoman Adrienne Jacobson says the state just doesn’t have the money. At just a single prison, Jacobson says more than 200 inmates are waiting for addiction treatment.

“You have a finite amount of resources,” she said. “I think it’s something all departments struggle with nationwide.”

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