DWI jail's long, winding road

August 13, 1993

Baltimore County's plan to open a prison and treatment center for drunk drivers has traveled a long and winding road.

First proposed five years ago by then-County Executive Dennis Rasmussen, the idea even became an issue during the local election campaign of 1990, when then-candidate Roger Hayden used the delayed opening of the jail as a club with which to pummel Mr. Rasmussen.

After Mr. Hayden came into office, he spent $700,000 to renovate a building at the Rosewood State Hospital Center in Owings Mills for the planned prison. But with the recession, Mr. Hayden thought twice about spending the $2 million needed to get the long-planned jail up and running.

Early this year, the Hayden administration deemed the only way to open the facility was to privatize it. The winning bid, announced last week, came from a respected Massachusetts firm, Right Turn Inc. If the County Council and the state's Board of Public Works approve the contract, the jail could be operating by year's end.

County substance abuse administrator Michael Gimbel calls Right Turn's offer a "win-win deal" for the government. The firm will cover all costs, from security to food.

Meanwhile, the county will control admissions to the facility, picking its own team of "intake" counselors but passing the $75,000 bill for them to Right Turn. Indeed, this sounds like a very good deal, especially given that Prince George's County's successful DWI jail, which Baltimore County's will apparently resemble, is run and paid for by the Prince George's government.

More important, the jail should help lower Baltimore County's annual statistics on drunk driving. About 3,000 people are arrested each year for driving under the influence of alcohol, a third of them repeat offenders. Numerous local traffic deaths are annually attributed to DWI cases, from 21 fatalities two years ago to as many as 40 in 1988. The toll rises even more when personal injuries and property damage are factored in.

Mr. Gimbel says the number of repeat offenders should drop markedly once the Right Turn method is in place. It will require inmates to live at the jail and undergo intensive therapy for 28 days and then undergo regular monitoring for a year, in contrast to other programs that treat drunk drivers for a month and return them to the streets without further counseling. Also, the cost won't be prohibitive, averaging about $3,700 per inmate.

A good deal for the county, yes, but the greatest savings would be not in dollars but in lives.

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