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A Mile High

By the fourth hour of dialing, I was ready to start drinking. It was not an appropriate reaction. My young friend, a 26-year-old with a good heart and bad judgment, had netted herself a DUI in another state, then moved to Colorado without a driver's license but with a strong...
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By the fourth hour of dialing, I was ready to start drinking.

It was not an appropriate reaction.

My young friend, a 26-year-old with a good heart and bad judgment, had netted herself a DUI in another state, then moved to Colorado without a driver's license but with a strong resolve to start a new life. And that life, she'd determined, should begin with a stay at an inpatient treatment center specializing in addiction issues. While she knew it was the right move, she was also feeling skittish about her decision; it's not easy to surrender control -- especially when you have a sneaking realization that without such a surrender, you'll never actually gain control. But early that morning, just as we were about to head to the center, the call came in: Because of a Colorado law the center had just stumbled upon, the program could not accept her until she'd been approved by the Interstate Compact Office.

And so we started dialing.

Where, exactly, might we find this office? The Colorado Department of Human Services sent us to a division that oversees adoptions. The Colorado Attorney General's Office recommended the local district attorney. By noon, we'd been on hold with the governor's office for sixteen minutes. "Margaritas and a minivan," my young friend murmured. "It sounds like so much fun, kids, but let me tell you, it ain't."

The governor's office finally produced a number that had been disconnected.

But in the fifth hour, we caught a factual thread that we ultimately followed to the knot at the center of this bureaucratic tangle.

Donta Page.

By all rights, Donta Page never should have come to Colorado.

In October 1998, Page was serving a twenty-year sentence for armed robbery in Maryland when officials there decided to grant him early release so that he could enroll at the Stout Street Foundation, a private drug and alcohol rehabilitation center in Denver. He was hardly a model resident, however, and on February 23, 1999, Page was kicked out of the program and onto the streets.

The next day, he broke into a duplex two doors away from Stout Street, a duplex where 24-year-old Peyton Tuthill lived. When Tuthill returned home unexpectedly to walk her dog, Page brutally raped her, beat her and killed her.

Last month, Pat Tuthill, Peyton's mother, filed a wrongful-death lawsuit against Maryland in Denver District Court, claiming that in sending Page to Colorado, that state had broken the provisions of the Interstate Compact, which oversees the supervision of parolees and probationers moving between states. Page wasn't the first felon Maryland had sent to Colorado -- but he was certainly the most deadly.

Pat Tuthill also addressed the three-judge death-penalty panel currently deciding whether Page should be put to death. The judges have already ruled that his crime was "especially heinous, cruel or depraved" -- a critical hurdle before a death sentence can be issued in this state.

Long before Donta Page was convicted of Peyton Tuthill's murder this past November, the verdict was already in at the Colorado Legislature: The state needed to tighten regulations that allowed out-of-state felons to come here for treatment.

Colorado became the first state in the country to pass an updated version of the Interstate Compact, an agreement originally approved back in 1937, when there were few parolees or probationers moving between states. Today there are tens of thousands.

But before the new agreement can take effect, it must be passed by two-thirds of the states -- and thus far, only eleven have signed off on the proposal. So Colorado has taken additional steps to protect itself.

In the spring of 1999, just months after Tuthill's murder, the legislature put House Bill 1353 on the fast track. "Although Colorado is a signatory to the Interstate Compact for parolee supervision," the bill pronounced, "more information concerning out-of-state offenders is necessary for the protection of the citizens of Colorado, and it may be necessary to further regulate programs that provide treatment and services to such persons." Donta Page certainly qualified as the sort of person that Colorado wanted to watch.

"The whole idea was to broaden the scope of the criteria used for the Interstate Compact," explains Alison Morgan, who works with the Interstate Compact Office from her post with the Colorado Department of Corrections. "Citizens of Colorado have a right to know when offenders are coming in from other states for treatment."

And Colorado legislators took a broad view of "offenders." HB 1353 also mandated that any "unsupervised person" convicted of a crime in another state who wanted to attend a private treatment program in Colorado had to register with the Interstate Compact Office -- even if that office wasn't required to track the person. And whether under court-ordered supervision or officially on their own, any out-of-staters who wanted to enter a private treatment program would first have to appear "at the local law-enforcement agency for fingerprinting and photographing."

The programs themselves had more forms to fill out, more questions to ask potential clients. If they failed to follow the proper procedures, they would be fined -- and could ultimately put themselves in danger of losing their licenses.

During the 2000 legislative session, HB 1254 went even further. The "private treatment programs" targeted by the bill were expanded to include non-residential as well as residential programs. Which meant that if an applicant wasn't accepted into a treatment program, he might still be on the streets.

Or maybe behind the wheel -- where a drunk could prove just as deadly as Donta Page.

By December 15, the Colorado Department of Human Services had already spent months trying to determine the ramifications of the new legislation, and its Alcohol and Drug Abuse Division sent an explanatory memo to all licensed alcohol and drug treatment programs in the state. House bills 1353 and 1254 "require any residential or outpatient treatment program to notify the Colorado Interstate Compact Office whenever an out-of-state offender enrolls in education or treatment," the memo noted. "This includes DUI offenders as well as non-DUI offenders." And as interpreted by the department, it also includes people convicted of misdemeanor traffic infractions as well as actual felonies.

"In order to identify clients who are out-of-state offenders, treatment programs will have to ask all potential clients whether they 'have been convicted of or have agreed to a deferred judgment, deferred sentence, or deferred prosecution for a crime in another state,'" the memo continued, noting that a "three-page procedural summary of the steps necessary to stay in compliance with the legislation and with ADAD treatment regulations" was attached.

"Since these requirements are new, we do not have any data to indicate the extent of the impact of this legislation," the memo concluded. "It will require extra steps for those programs that choose to admit out-of-state offenders into treatment, and may delay the entry into treatment for those who need it."

In the ten weeks since that memo was sent out, Lance Musselman, its co-author and head of the state's DUI treatment programs, has begun collecting anecdotal data. "It's an awfully broad net, catching run-of-the-mill DUI offenders," he says. "We're just starting to see the impact."

His office receives many queries from treatment agencies, wondering if they can help anyone who's committed any kind of offense in another state. In order to avoid the paperwork hassles, some programs have decided simply not to accept any out-of-staters. Others report that "clients have walked out during the intake process," Musselman says. And some of these, he adds, "may be the ones the legislature meant to catch."

When lawmakers were debating the bills, addiction experts argued -- unsuccessfully -- that alcohol treatment programs should be excluded from the legislation. After all, they said, these people posed far less of a risk to society when they were getting help than when they were left on the streets.

For the past several months, Denver officials have been debating a proposed ordinance that would bring local shelters in compliance with the state law. Shelter officials are worried that if they ask too many questions of people who need a bed for the night, ask too many questions of alcoholics who want to take that first step toward getting dry, they might lose those people altogether. The issue is so sticky that the city may try to push the ordinance deadline back from March 15 to mid-May.

Twenty-four hours, many helpful conversations and a very dry night after we discovered Colorado's legislative loophole, I drove my young friend to a suburban police department, where she was duly fingerprinted and photographed by a baffled officer who had never heard of HB 1254. And then we continued on to a treatment program, where she is now getting the help she needs.

We should all be so lucky.

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