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Judicial discretion in sentencing under 2015 DUI law a point of contention

In 2015, Colorado lawmakers passed a bill that cracked down on repeat offenders by making third and subsequent DUI offenses felonies instead of misdemeanors, an approach followed in most jurisdictions. In order to silence opposition to the bill and get it passed, though, lawmakers set aside mandatory minimum sentences, giving judges more discretion in sentencing repeat offenders.

In practice, critics say, this has led to situations where repeat DUI offenders may be charged with a felony, but receive a relatively light sentence. Critics say that sentences can vary significantly, with repeat offenders sometimes receiving lighter sentences than first- or second-time offenders, which undermines the effectiveness of the law and puts dangerous drivers back out on the road. 

Proponents of the law say that mandatory minimum sentences do not allow judges to take into consideration the specific circumstances of each case, and point out that the law does not prevent judges from imposing prison time for felony charges. They also argue that automatic imposition of lengthy jail sentences is not appropriate in cases where rehabilitation could still be effective. In some cases, repeat DUI offenders are able to participate in rehabilitation programs in place of supervised probation and treatment.  The availability of rehabilitation can depend on what resources the county has available.

The question of determining which DUI offenders could potentially be helped by rehabilitation is not always an easy one. DUI offenders who would benefit from rehabilitation can and should work with experienced legal counsel to ensure that their interests are represented in the sentencing phase of the criminal process.

In our next post, we'll continue looking at this issue, and specifically at some of the factors that might come justify a lighter sentence in DUI cases. 

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