New facility can house 100 drunken drivers


With a 5, 4, 3, 2, 1 countdown and a snip of red ribbon, the long-awaited Baltimore County DWI Facility officially opened yesterday in Owings Mills.

Touted as a labor of love and commitment, the 100-bed co-ed facility for convicted drunken drivers finally has made it through six years of broken promises, financial problems, a change in backers and mounds of red tape. It emerged as a for-profit, privately run jail with limited cost to taxpayers.

Politicians, law enforcement officials, members of Mothers Against Drunk Driving and about 100 others attended the opening. Supporters hope the first referrals will begin by the end of the week.

"This is an example of many agencies working together and cooperating and keeping one vision: getting drunk drivers off the road and keeping them off the road," Michael M. Gimbel, director of the county's substance abuse office and main draftsman of the DWI jail, told the gathering.

Modeled after a DWI jail in Prince George's County, the facility is in a renovated building at Rosewood State Hospital Center.

With 80 beds for men and 20 for women in separate areas, it will give judges another option in dealing with drunken drivers. It works like this:

The judge sentences a drunken driver to the facility. The driver then will be assessed by a team to determine if he or she has violent background or a drug dependency. Either would mean disqualification and a return to court for more traditional sentencing.

Those who qualify will be required to live in the facility for 28 days. They will be allowed out Monday through Friday to work during the day. At night, they will attend counseling sessions. After 28 days, they will be released but must attend weekly counseling sessions for a year.

The fee for the 28 days is based on income, ranging from nothing for drivers who earn less than $5,000 a year up to $5,000 for those who earn more than $50,000. Twenty beds are set aside for the indigent. The weekly follow-up sessions will cost everyone $25 a visit.

To enter the grounds, drivers must take a breath test and submit to random drug testing.

"This is not country club or the Betty Ford clinic," Mr. Gimbel said, referring to the posh California facility for the rich and famous.

Even so, it's not like most jails. There are no bars, no armed guards and no overcrowding. There is a recreation room, vending machines and a lounge area. The rooms are equipped with several closely spaced bunk beds.

The goal is to slash the recidivism rate and cut the number of arrests -- now about 4,000 a year -- by providing long-term care to alcohol abusers, Mr. Gimbel said.

The jail is operated under a contract with Right Turn of Maryland, a private corporation that runs a similar facility in Massachusetts. The firm says the jail will cost about $1.5 million a year to operate.

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