Filling Beds at the DWI Jail

January 27, 1995

The shortage of clients at Baltimore County's new detention and treatment facility for drunken drivers should not be cause for alarm.

Four months after opening on the grounds of the state's Rosewood Center in Owings Mills, the facility still has too brief a track record -- and too much potential -- for public officials and the jail's private operators to consider anything other than maintaining their full support for the project.

Since last September, about 100 people have been sent to the 100-bed jail. Each offender resides and receives therapy there for 28 days at a cost of roughly 10 percent of his or her annual income, continuing with regular counseling for a year after release. Many judges, already too reluctant to give tough sentences to drunken drivers, have been equally unwilling to dispatch offenders to a program for which they would have to pay. Such soft treatment is a disservice to justice, the community and the drunken drivers themselves, many of whom are repeat offenders with a chronic disease that won't be checked without proper therapy. Cost should not be a deterrent to referrals. Even when a client can't meet the relatively inexpensive cost of the stay and treatment, he or she can resort to a long-term plan that stretches out the payments.

Baltimore County officials and Right Turn Inc., the respected Massachusetts-based firm that runs the jail, have been contacting neighboring jurisdictions about sending their DWI offenders to the Owings Mills facility. This is a wise move. To date, about two dozen referrals have come from District Court judges in Baltimore City, Anne Arundel and Howard counties and as far away as Dorchester and Worcester counties. Harford County officials hope to alleviate overcrowding at the detention center near Bel Air by sending DWI offenders to Owings Mills. If ever there was a ready-made opportunity for regional cooperation, this is it.

The number of deaths resulting from DWI accidents has dropped by nearly a third in the United States since 1982. Yet the financial cost of these mishaps remains staggering, in the tens of billions of dollars annually. The greatest losses, of course, are those of the lives and dreams snuffed out by drunken drivers.

As judges and defense attorneys contend, most drunken drivers are not evil people. They do, however, suffer from a sickness that will be remedied not by lenient judicial treatment but, more likely, by the kind of treatment offered at Baltimore County's DWI facility.

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