No one can deny that penalties for Driving Under the Influence in Colorado have gotten harsher. According to the Colorado Department of Transportation, the average cost of a DUI in Colorado is over $10,000 (Total financial cost is estimated at $10, 270, including fines, fees, attorney costs, etc – See CDOT site here). In addition to the financial strain of dealing with a DUI, the state legislature has seen fit to impose an additional cost to repeat offenders.
According to The Denver Post, a unanimous vote of the House Judiciary Committee approved a bill in February requiring “at least 10 days in jail for a second drunken-driving offense and at least 60 days in jail for third and subsequent offenses.” In addition to the time spent in jail, repeat offenders would also be required to “spend up to two years on probation and participate in alcohol education and treatment classes.”
The reason for the increase in DUI sentencing, according to Rep. Claire Levy, D-Boulder, the committee chairwoman and bill sponsor, is public safety. In order to combat persistently drunk drivers who “are on the roads causing a significant threat to all of us,” the legislature wanted to impose an “immediate sanction . . . without causing them to lose jobs and families.”
Public safety is certainly a major concern for the state legislature in imposing stricter sentencing guidelines. However, Levy underplays the true significance of the penalties. While 10 days in jail might not seem like a long sentence, that is still a lot of time to be away from work. Even if some of those days fell on weekends, the person serving the sentence is still going to miss close to an entire week of work. Depending on the employer, such an absence could easily be cause for termination.
Furthermore, other than the mandated statutory minimums, sentencing is entirely at the discretion of the presiding judge, which varies from courtroom to courtroom. This becomes especially relevant when considering the method by which a sentence is to be carried out – an important area not covered by the new legislation. For instance, a judge is required to sentence someone to a minimum of 60 days in jail for a third DUI, under the statute. But, while many judges allow for work-release or in-home detention, nothing is guaranteed.
The new legislation also fails to address the increased costs that accompany alternatives to incarceration. Such increased costs can be easily out of reach for indigent defendants. Even if an offender is eligible for electronic home monitoring (EMH) and a judge decides to grant it as an alternative to incarceration, there are costs. Installation and maintenance fees of EMH are significant. In that case, 60 days in jail will certainly have a detrimental effect on a person’s job and, as a result, on their family.
In El Paso County, in order to participate in Work Release, an offender must pay a stipend of approximately $15 per day. (Sontheimer, Henry, Sentencing in Colorado: The Use of Alternatives to Prison and Jail Incarceration – available here).. That is assuming that the offender: 1) still has a job to return to by the time he or she is sentenced; 2) the job is located within the jurisdiction; and 3) has an employment schedule that supports the strict release/return times required of the Work Release program.
While the state legislature may have intended to prevent the loss of jobs and families, in spite of the “immediate sanctions,” it appears as if Levy, the sponsor of the bill, is not fully aware of the real costs to the citizens of Colorado. This is not to say that creating harsher penalties for repeat offenders is unfair, or even unwarranted. But if it is indeed the intent of the legislature to impose immediate sanctions on repeat offenders, without endangering a person’s family or livelihood, they should be clear of exactly what kind of costs these harsher penalties present. For those citizens who do not have the benefit of job security or financial stability, an ever-increasing reality for more and more citizens of Colorado, these harsher sanctions will be absolutely devastating.
Judicial discretion, a vital part of the criminal justice system, is now eliminated for an entire category of offenses. By implementing mandatory sanctions, the legislature is effectively tying the hands of the judiciary. A judge can no longer take into consideration an individual’s financial situation, level of education, or family obligations in making sentence determinations.
In an article by The Denver Post prior to the new bill being adopted, Rep. Levy said that she had heard from constituents that they wanted drunk drivers off the road and that she was “trying to bring some certainty and consistency to these sentencing laws so people know what they face if they go out and drive drunk.” From a moral standpoint, this is a good-hearted, responsible effort on the part of the legislature to deter potential drunk drivers. However, with such sanctions come serious consequences – ones that the legislature did not necessarily anticipate.
Saying that the bill will impose sanctions on drunk drivers, “without causing them to lose jobs and families,” is inaccurate. If the legislature’s sole intent is to deter drunk driving, so be it. Clearly, public safety is a chief concern and this bill is intended to further that concern. But if you are going to lay down the law and remove discretion in sentencing from the judiciary, you must at least acknowledge the consequences of your actions.
The unfortunate reality is that not all offenders are social equals. People are going to lose their jobs. People are going to lose their families. To say that they will not is to sugarcoat the situation and mislead the very constituents the government is supposed to represent.