Almost four months after Baltimore County's long-delayed 100-bed jail for drunken drivers opened its doors, the facility is nearly empty.
Fewer than 65 people have gone through the jail's program, which is financed by fees levied on the participants. To attract clients and make ends meet, the jail's private operator, Right Turn of Maryland, has opened it to people with drug abuse problems who already are on work release.
Officials say the county's judges have not been referring offenders to the program in anywhere near the numbers they expected. Most cite the high price -- as much as 10 percent of an offender's yearly income -- as the reason.
On top of that, drunken driving arrests were down by 29 percent last year, leaving a smaller potential pool of inmates.
"It's hitting us hard," John D. Goings, administrator of the Baltimore County DWI Facility, said. "I would say that right now we are 90 percent below expected capacity."
The center's operator has sent mailings urging judges and attorneys to consider the DWI facility. Mothers Against Drunk Driving, which maintains an active court-watch program to track DWI sentences, also has been asked to spread the word.
Conceived as an alternative to regular jail terms, the DWI facility allows inmates to work at their jobs during the day but provides extensive alcohol therapy at night and in weekly follow-up sessions after offenders are released.
Before it opened in a renovated building at the state's Rosewood Center in Owings Mills, officials predicted they would have no trouble filling it.
The cost of treatment is based on an inmate's income, ranging from nothing for those who earn less than $5,000 a year to as much as $5,000 for those who earn more than $50,000.
While judges can recommend the DWI jail, they can't require inmates to go there.
"The only problem is that every time you want to put somebody in there, they don't want to go," said District Court Judge I. Marshall Seidler. "They don't want to spend the money."
"If the program was 100 percent funded by the government, it would be full," said Michael M. Gimbel, director of the county's substance abuse office.
Hopes for a successful operation were based on assessments by Mr. Gimbel's office of the 1,800 drunken drivers convicted in 1993.
But county police records show a precipitous drop in DWI arrests in 1994. Officials said that fewer officers on traffic patrol and last winter's icy weather may have been factors. State and national DWI arrest figures also declined, although not as sharply.
Mr. Gimbel said the decrease also may be the result of "the awareness programs working, designated driver programs and people thinking before they get behind the wheel of a car."
Despite the rocky start, both Mr. Gimbel and Mr. Goings are optimistic about the program's long-term prospects.
"I don't want to paint the picture too black," Mr. Goings said. "In the next two to three months, if we can get our population, we'll be good to go. If it doesn't, we are going to have to re-evaluate the whole facility, and the people who are going to suffer are the residents we are trying to treat."