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Warden: DUI bill may affect space in county prison

October 02, 2003|by DON AINES

chambersburg@herald-mail.com

CHAMBERSBURG, Pa. - Already burdened with the highest population in its history, Franklin County Prison could be straining to contain an additional influx of inmates after Pennsylvania Gov. Ed Rendell on Tuesday signed into law a statute lowering the legal limit for intoxication.

The bill lowered the limit for intoxication from a blood-alcohol level of 0.1 percent to 0.08 percent and toughened penalties for those convicted of having levels above 0.16 percent. Warden John Wetzel said he agreed the state needs to get tougher with drunken drivers, but the legislature approved the bill and the governor signed it just months after cutting funding for treatment.

"To mandate treatment and cut drug and alcohol funding in half within a three-month period, I don't see how they can do that with a straight face," Wetzel said.

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First offenders with a reading between .08 percent and .099 percent face a penalty of six months on probation, a provision of the law Wetzel said will not greatly affect the prison population. The higher penalties that will take effect in February for those with levels above .16 percent, however, likely will strain prison resources.

The minimum sentence will increase from two days under the current law to three days. For second offenders, the minimum penalty jumps from 30 to 90 days.

"In September, we had the highest daily population in the 31-year history of the prison," Wetzel said. With a rated capacity of 174 male and 26 female inmates, the prison housed an average of 351 last month, not counting an average of 24 per day that are being housed at prisons outside the county.

Wetzel said finding extra bed space at other jails could be a problem if all are looking at higher populations in coming months.

On Tuesday, the prison was holding 24 inmates sentenced for driving under the influence, according to Wetzel. He said half a dozen more probably came in Wednesday after court sentencing.

The number of DUI-related inmates, however, was 118 Wednesday, according to Assistant Warden John Eyler. That number included those sentenced, awaiting sentencing or back in jail for parole or probation violations, about a third of the inmate population.

"How will it affect the caseload? That was asked of me by the judges this morning," chief probation officer Richard Mertz said Wednesday. "We have about 586 on the rolls right now for parole cases and ARD (Accelerated Rehabilitative Disposition) cases."

The ARD program typically is for first offenders and usually involves a suspension of license and a year on probation.

"We're going to be in a wait-and-see mode," Mertz said. The first quarter of next year should give an indication of how many more cases his office will see.

"We're going to look at our budget - see what we need to request to provide adequate service to the court and protect the public," Mertz said.

Another factor is how aggressively police pursue those with blood alcohol levels between .08 and .099 percent, Mertz said.

"I've probably seen a lot that were hovering around .10," said Cpl. Robert Marshal of the Pennsylvania State Police. "I would believe our numbers are going to greatly increase."

Franklin County has been among the top police stations in the state for driving under the influence arrests, Marshall said. That included nearly 500 in 2002, he said.

Assistant District Attorney T.R. Williams said he would have to review the entire bill - the summary runs nine pages - before he could gauge the ramifications.

Williams said he expects the number of cases handled by the office will increase, but would not try to estimate how much.

The old law, Williams noted, already had a provision under which a person could be charged with being incapable of safe driving, even when their blood alcohol level was below 0.1 percent.

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