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Weekends behind bars, not at them

February 12, 2009|By DON AINES

CHAMBERSBURG, Pa. -- The weekend is often the time when people will have one or five drinks too many, get behind the wheel of a car and get arrested for driving under the influence.

Beginning tonight the Franklin County Jail will accept its first inmate for the Weekender Incarceration Program, aimed at those serving sentences of 30 days or less for drunken driving.

"Many of the DUIs occur on the weekend. To have a DUI offender come to jail instead of the bar sends a wonderful message," Franklin County Warden John Wetzel said of one benefit of the program. Others, he said, include better use of bed space, lower costs, community service, keeping offenders employed and faster court processing.

With the economy in recession and more offenders enrolled in the county's Day Reporting Center, the jail's work release beds are underutilized, Wetzel said. Work release inmates spend their days on the job and report to jail at night.

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Offenders in the weekender program can fill those beds for up to 15 weekends to serve their sentences, Wetzel said. Inmates will pay $30 each weekend to defray costs for drug testing, meals and personal hygiene supplies, Wetzel said.

In 2007, when the average daily prison population was more than 300 inmates a day, an average of 51 people were incarerated for drunken driving, Wetzel said.

Participants are expected to participate in community service, working for local governments, churches and nonprofit groups, Wetzel said. Organizations wishing to use inmate service will carry some of the responsibilities, he said.

"You pick them up, you feed them and you bring them back," Wetzel said. "There can absolutely be no cost to us."

The jail gets many requests from groups for inmate labor and, with spring coming around, there could be a lot of demand for weekenders to do outdoor work, he said.

Because inmates are free to get to their jobs during the week, there is less likelihood of them losing employment, Wetzel said.

There is a catch to getting in the program, said District Attorney John F. Nelson, one designed to help speed court proceedings.

"We will be advising people ... at the time of their preliminary hearings that they may be eligible for the program," Nelson said. "If they want to enter the program they will be required to enter a guilty plea at their first court appearance, which is mandatory arraignment."

"That's sort of the carrot we offer them ... They've got to take the express train if they want to get in," Nelson said. Defendants often plead not guilty at mandatory arraignment and several court appearances over a period of months can follow before sentencing, he said.

Offenders must show up by 7 p.m. Friday and will be released at 7 p.m. on Sunday, but those who report late, drunk or on drugs, face stiff sanctions, Wetzel said. Instead of going home Sunday, he said, violators could find themselves in front of a judge on Monday morning.

Wetzel said the program might later expand to include those with DUI sentences up to 90 days, or those convicted of other nonviolent crimes.

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