PRISON or DRUNK TANK
(EDITOR’S NOTE: A consultant recently recommended Lycoming County spend $40 million on a new prison to keep up with demand for cell space. The Sun-Gazette today offers the second installment in a five-day series that examines how the county got to this place and what options may be available.)
Drunken driving is indubitably burdening the Lycoming County prison system.
Of 1,747 cases handled in county court in 2011, 542 were for drunken driving.
That same year, Lycoming County sentenced 84 percent of its 313 DUI offenders to county intermediate punishment, a program created in 1991 that mixes some incarceration with probationary oversight. Some mandatory jail time usually is part of an intermediate punishment sentence.
“Our DUIs were up pretty dramatically” in 2012, said county President Judge Nancy Butts. “Most DUIs have mandatory jail time.”
Mandatory DUI sentences run from 48 hours in jail for a first-time offender with a 0.10 to 0.16 blood-alcohol content to one year for someone with two or more prior offenses whose blood-alcohol content is greater than 0.16.
Since the DUI law changed in 2003, lowering the legal level to .08 and creating a “three-tier” system, the county has seen more cases coming through the system.
While state law says there are mandatory sentences for most DUI offenders, some means can be found to avoid incarceration time for offenders placed on intermediate punishment, because the statute calls for someone placed on intermediate punishment to be strictly supervised, rather than fully incarcerated. That can mean alternatives such as house arrest and electronic monitoring.
“That’s why we have DUI court, to intervene with 90-day and one-year people,” Butts said. “You can do things like 30 days in and 60 days out on a bracelet for people on the court … we should be using conditions tailored to the needs of the offender. (For nonviolent crimes) it’s more about molding behavior rather than protecting communities.”
For some offenders, there is Accelerated Rehabilitative Disposition, which allows an offender to get off with essentially probation and fines. The vast majority of those who received ARD are convicted of a DUI.
“ARD is a true first-time offender program,” said District Attorney Eric Linhardt. “The rationale is, the second time convicted for drunken driving, the consequence is you go to jail.”
The bar and bench think that the ARD program could be more inclusive.
“A lot of counties are moving a lot more cases on ARD than we are,” Butts said.
“We’re not taking advantage of alternatives but if the DA thinks that’s what’s fair, that’s how the process works.”
“If you had a DUI 20 years ago, he won’t give you ARD,” said chief public defender William Miele. “That’s his philosophy. But his philosophy is costing the taxpayers money.”