Sobriety court offers different approach for extreme DUI offenders in Denver

7:17 AM, Apr 27, 2013   |    comments
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DENVER - When Shawna Bauer had to choose between alcohol and her child, she chose alcohol. The consequences of that decision have haunted her ever since.

Facing jail time, she accepted an offer from Denver's new sobriety court. 9Wants to Know spent 9 months looking into the program, which not everyone thinks is a great idea.

The Denver District Attorney's Office offers sobriety court only to extreme offenders, like people with multiple DUI's or Bauer, severe alcoholism.

The program promises less jail time. 9Wants to Know found that's not always the case and some offenders may not realize what they're really signing up for.

"Years and years it went on. In almost all my pictures there's a beer somewhere," Bauer said. "I was always drunk."

Bauer, 32, says a decade of her life was lost in a haze.

"That's just what alcohol does," she said.

Bauer lost more than memories during that drunken decade. She lost the one person who matters more than anything.

Bauer's son Khalil lives in California with her ex-husband and she has no parental rights.

"He's my baby boy. I miss him to death," Bauer said. "Feeling like I failed, like I failed as a mother. I thought the drinking was more important. That's how I feel. I screwed up big time."

Bauer drowned her sorrows with more alcohol.

"[I was] miserable, sad, angry, alone," she said.

Two of her friends died in one month.

"Both of them died from over drinking," Bauer said.

Bauer's parents feared she would be next.

"She told me 'I don't wanna go out this way," her mother Sheryl Broadnax said.

"You know someone is sick. And it's almost like you can't do anything," her father Dan Broadnax said.

Bauer was drunk on the night of her friend's funeral.

"At the wake, I don't remember anything. I got in the car to drive home, realized I couldn't drive, pulled over. The next thing I know police were knocking on the window," Bauer said.

Bauer woke up to a new, sobering reality. Police arrested Bauer and charged her with a DUI. She didn't stay sober for long.

Denver prosecutor Matthew Wenig says Bauer's in-court breathalyzer test showed a shockingly high blood alcohol level.

"Not only did she come to court intoxicated, she was over a .300 again. You get to a level where not only should you not be conscious, you shouldn't be alive," Wenig said.

Wenig decided to offer Bauer the option of Denver Sobriety Court. The program will be two years old this spring.

In Courtroom 3C, Judge Brian Campbell presides over Sobriety Court, modeled after Denver Drug Court. Campbell says this type of program reduces the usual 90 percent relapse rate by 8 to 12 percent.

"The ultimate thing that you're preventing is loss of life. When you start to sit there and think about the 8 to 12 percent and the people who might have died as a result of that, it's a sobering experience," Campbell said.

The program requires offenders to spend hundreds of hours and thousands of dollars.

Bauer estimates the total cost to her and her parents is $15,000, the cost of daily drug and alcohol testing, weekly counseling, bi-monthly trips to the court and probation office.

The judge, prosecutor, public defender, and others hold a meeting before each session. Offenders who meet the strict requirements get praise and prizes.

Those who don't meet the requirements can end up back in jail, which has critics like Denver DUI attorney Jay Tiftickjian concerned.

"It could lead to a much longer sentence down the road," Tiftickjian said.

Tiftickjian tells clients not to accept an offer of sobriety court. The offer is made during the first court appearance and defendants often get just one week to decide.

"There's pressure that is put on them. In order to properly defend, there is so much more information that we need to get and it's not going to happen in a week," Tiftickjian said.

Sobriety court supporters say the chance of success is better closer to the arrest.

"All defendants should be created equally," Tiftickjian said.

Tiftickjian is also concerned the prosecutor, not the judge, decides who gets into Sobriety Court. Amy Weichel is a public defender handling more than half the Sobriety Court cases, including Bauer's.

"These are people with serious addictions. [Bauer has] turned her life around. She's amazing," Weichel said.

Instead of drinking, Bauer is studying and working on a bachelor's degree in business.

"Everyday I'm learning something new. It was like going back to where I was 16 again," Bauer said.

Bauer got her GED, but never graduated high school. Sobriety court graduation is the first time Bauer will receive a diploma.

"So we have 17 graduates today," Denver Probation Officer Supervisor Deanna Maes said.

"Thank you for saving my life," said one graduate as she sobbed while accepting her diploma.

For each graduate, this was a hard road.

"I'm almost at two years clean and I wouldn't have been able to do it without this program," Bauer said.

Sobriety court graduation is really just the beginning. For an alcoholic, staying sober is a daily struggle.

For Bauer, the son she hasn't seen in 5 years keeps her going.

"Every day I go to work or I go to school, it's for him. Everyday I stay sober for him. I think about saying 'I was sick for a long time, and I apologize for walking out of your life.' Once I get everything done, I'm going for him," Bauer said.

Bauer has no legal parental rights and no money to hire a lawyer right now, so she doesn't know when she'll be able to see her son Khalil.

Sobriety court can handle around 300 people at any given time, a fraction of the 3,000 to 3,500 annual DUI arrests in Denver.

Eighty percent of those arrested for DUI are first time offenders and don't qualify for the program.

The program just expanded to include defendants from Denver and surrounding counties, making sobriety court available to more people.

9NEWS photojournalist Enrico Meyer's insight on Sobriety Court

(KUSA-TV © 2013 Multimedia Holdings Corporation)

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