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Changes to Pa. DUI laws lead to longer jail terms

December 10, 2006|by DON AINES

CHAMBERSBURG, PA. - Lowering the legal limit for intoxication in Pennsylvania in 2004 did not greatly increase the number of people committed to Franklin County Prison for driving under the influence, but the tougher sentencing laws passed at the same time resulted in the average period of incarceration going up by three weeks.

"There really hasn't been much of a jump in the number of inmates over the five years," Warden John Wetzel said. The number of people sentenced for drunken driving was 254 in 2001 and 275 in 2005, he said.

In 2003, the year before the tougher penalties went into effect, the number of people sentenced was 271, according to a report Wetzel compiled for the county Prison Board. When the law took effect in 2004, the number of people sentenced was 224, the lowest during the period from 2001 to 2005.

Although the law has been in effect nearly three years, Wetzel said he did not expect to see an impact until 2005 because of the time it takes for an offender to go through judicial procedures. Following an arrest and preliminary arraignment, a person then has a preliminary hearing and mandatory arraignment before a case is scheduled for disposition or trial, a process that can take months.

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Figures for 2006 will not be compiled until the year is over, Wetzel said.

The impact on inmate days did make itself evident in 2005, Wetzel said. In 2004, the average length of stay for a person convicted of driving under the influence was 27.25 days, little changed from the average for the previous three years.

However, in 2005, the figure jumped to 48.29 days, according to the report.

Effective Feb. 1, 2004, the new driving under the influence law lowered the blood-alcohol level for legal intoxication from .1 percent to .08 percent, matching many other states. For someone with a blood-alcohol level between .08 percent and .1 percent, a first offense results in a maximum of six months on probation.

Even with a higher blood-alcohol level, many first-time offenders are accepted into the Accelerated Rehabilitative Disposition (ARD) program, in which they are placed on probation, Assistant District Attorney Jeremiah Zook said.

"If they have no prior record and there was not a serious accident involved, they're going to get ARD," Zook said.

The biggest effect the new law has on the county prison is when a person is convicted of their fourth drunken-driving offense, which carries a mandatory minimum sentence of one year in prison, Wetzel said.

"Under the old law, that would be served at a state correctional facility," Zook said. Now, a four-time offender can spend up to one year in a county prison with the responsibility of parole remaining with the county courts rather than the Pennsylvania Board of Probation and Parole, he said.

Wetzel's inmate population report to the Prison Board showed 28 people serving sentences for driving under the influence, another 20 in for probation or parole violations for DUI convictions, and another dozen in pretrial detention.

Despite longer average sentences for DUI offenders, Wetzel said the prison population had decreased markedly this year from 2005. The average daily population is 328 inmates this year, compared to 375 last year, he said.

The opening of the Day Reporting Center has had a positive effect in lowering the prison population, Wetzel said. The center, where criminal offenders can receive drug and alcohol testing, counseling and other services, opened in April.

Some inmates are eligible to enter the day reporting program after serving two-thirds of their minimum mandatory sentence, Wetzel said.

From January through the end of April, Wetzel's analysis of the program showed that the average daily population of the prison was 351. During the center's first six full months of operation, from May through October, the jail population fell to 315, according to the report.

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