Editor’s Note: All this week on 9NEWS and 9news.com is an in-depth look at repeat drunken drivers, the tragedies they’ve been blamed for, and how a new state law intended to crack down on them is – or isn’t – working.  

DENVER - When Colorado legislators and then-Gov. John Hickenlooper made it a felony to get busted driving drunk a fourth time, they envisioned a measure that would finally get chronic offenders off the road.

“I think at a certain point, you can’t let them drive,” Hickenlooper said the day he signed the felony DUI law at a company that makes breath-testing devices that can be installed in cars – a move that can be ordered for repeat offenders.

That was the summer of 2015.

Beth McCann, now Denver’s district attorney but then a state representative, believed that the law would deter people who’d already been arrested for DUI multiple times – because they would be facing a felony conviction and they could be sentenced to as much as six years in the state prison system.

“The ultimate goal of the law was to – is to – reduce the number of people driving drunk on our highways,” McCann told 9NEWS earlier this month.

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But the reality 3½ years after the measure became law, a 9Wants to Know investigation found, is that people are still drinking, still driving – more than 4,000 of them charged with DUI for at least the fourth time since the law took effect, undeterred by the threat of a felony or of prison.

Getting convicted of the new charge still wasn’t enough to stop some of these drivers – more 116 people who were convicted of felony DUI later got convicted of it a second time after they drove drunk again.

Eight of them got convicted of felony DUI a third time.

And – at least to date – it doesn’t appear that the law has cut traffic fatalities in DUI crashes:

In 2015, the year the law took effect, 151 people died in DUI wrecks in Colorado, and that number climbed to 161 the next year and to 177 in 2017.

Preliminary numbers for 2018 suggest as many as 219 people died in impaired crashes, based on law enforcement suspicion at the time of the stop. That number may change as toxicology reports are completed.

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In an effort to examine the law’s effectiveness, 9Wants to Know pulled every one of the 2,346 cases where there was a felony DUI conviction between the time the law took effect, Aug. 5, 2015, and the end of 2018.

  • In 820 cases, people convicted of at least their fourth DUI weren’t sent to jail or prison, instead getting sentences that included things like community corrections, probation, and alcohol treatment – or some combination of them. And even after the legislature added a minimum 90-day jail sentence to the law in 2017, 9Wants to Know found 44 cases where no jail sentence was imposed.
  • In 661 cases, the felony DUI conviction ended in a prison sentence.
  • In 622 cases, the chronic drunken drivers were sent to community corrections – a regimented system where offenders live with in a restricted setting but have much more freedom than they would have in jail and can keep their jobs. Violating the rules of community corrections can lead to a prison sentence – and that’s what happened in 95 of the 97 cases where chronic drunk drivers violated the rules, 9Wants to Know found.

McCann said she never expected that everyone convicted of felony DUI would go to prison – and, in fact, she believes strongly that the best way to break the cycle of drinking and driving is treatment.

“We work very hard in this office to help people get treatment, get through their addiction and become sober,” McCann said. “Getting stopped for DUI in terms of the number that go to prison, I don't think I really had a specific expectation because they all differ.”

She touted a three-year program used in Denver, but she also acknowledged that treatment doesn’t always work.

“At some point, after they've been giving a lot of opportunities and they're just not able to stop, you know, prison is appropriate because they are dangerous on our highways,” she said. “I always think, even if you want to drink, don't get behind the wheel of a car, because of the damage that you can cause, and the heartache.”

In its investigation, 9Wants to Know found case after case where people convicted of felony DUI had been through treatment multiple times before and after earlier drunken driving convictions.

All of it has led to differing opinions about the best approach – treatment, even when it’s failed in the past, or prison, even though it may not help an offender conquer problems with alcohol, or some combination of both?

“Here’s the good news – the good news is that the more times a person goes through alcohol treatment, the more likely it is to work the next time,” Dr. Max Wachtel, a forensic psychologist, told 9NEWS. “The bad news is that once a person gets to like four or five DUIs, maybe treatment isn’t going to work for that person. And treatment doesn’t work for everybody.”

And when treatment doesn’t work, “maybe the public is just safer having that person out from behind the wheel for three or four years,” Wachtel said.

“It’s a tough call,” he said. “Treatment has not worked. They obviously are not wanting to get any better. They’re drinking and driving a lot, even though they’ve only gotten busted four times. Maybe it’s better to keep them someplace safe for a while so that they don’t hurt anybody else.”

 Contact 9NEWS reporter Kevin Vaughan with tips about this or any story: kevin.vaughan@9news.com or 303-871-1862.

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