For the past three weeks, Prince George's Country District Court Judge Vincent J. Femia has been sending a lot of people to jail whom he considers "nice people - not at all criminals.' because they've asked to be jailed.
They are also people who have come before Femia on a drunk driving charge.
In an effort to cut down the number of drunk drivers in the county, the judge has adopted a sentencing policy for first offenders that is unique in the metropolitan area.
He lets those charged with drunk driving plead guilty or "no contest," then gives them a choice: either they pay a fine of between $100 and $500 and have their licence revoked, or spend the night in the Prince George's County Jail.
So far, all but two of the 16 persons the judge has sentenced for drunk driving in the past three weeks have opted to go to jail.
"There's going to be a socking people going to jail for driving while intoxicated," Judge Femia said, "but I believe that's going to make an impression on them."
In Prince George's alcohol was factor in over half of the 105 traffic fatalities that occurred in the county last year, according to the Maryland State Police. Yet, a jail sentence for a first offender (who has not killed or hurt another persons - especially in other jurisdictions - is virtually unheard of.
In fact, the trend among area prosecutors seems to be toward decriminalizing the drunk driving charge by permitting first offenders simply to attend driver education classes called DWI - driving while intoxicated - casses) that focus on drunk driving problems rather than take their license away, according to attorneys outside Prince George's.
Judge Femia says most of the people he sends to jail are typically between 25 and 40 years old and are employed in "while collar" jobs - many in the government and the military. Most times, Femia said, the idea of going to jail takes them by surprise.
"Take Mr. Callaway for example. He turned to his lawyer and said, 'Sure I'll take the night in jail, no problem.' You should have seen him the day after his night in jail," Femia said.
The day of his release from the jail, John T. Callaway told a reporter, "I'd just as soon give up my license than spend another night in that place.
"We slept on mats on the floor, we didn't get no breakfast, no coffee, no nothing. There was one shower in the whole place with dirty towels and dirty soap. I wouldn't have gone in there even if I hadn't taken a shower in a year," he added.
Callaway, 46, a conductor for the Washington Terminal Company, was arrested for drunk driving after a car he was driving hit a parked car on Columbia Avenue, in the College Park area, not far from his home. He said he though the judge's punishment was somewhat harsh."I never had no points taken off my license, I don't have a drinking problem, and i didn't even hurt nobody," he complained.
Roger B. Rutherford, 53, however, said he was "grateful" for the chance Femia gave him to keep his licence by going to jail. Rutherford, manager of a disco-restaurant in Camp Springs, said, "I ain't going to drink and drive anymore. I don't want to have to spend another night with those hoodlums - not the way we were packing in those cells."
Femia's policy on the surface would seem to discriminate against those who could not afford to pay a fine, thereby giving them no choice but to go to jail. The judge said he "would work out a payment plan" so that those who chose to be fined rather than imprisoned could pay the fine he imposes.
Clyde Smithson, 30, arrested for drunk driving in forestville two days before Christmas while he was visiting his parents, said he opted to go to jail because he couldn't pay a fine and the jail sentence "was the only other alternative for me." Smitson, currently unemployed said of his prison experience, "it impreseed me a lot."
Femia's policy has been criticized by State's Attorney Arther (Bud) Marshall, Jr., who thinks it is too soft. Those drivers who opt to go to jail, besides being allowed to keep their licenses, are left with no criminal or driving record since the judge suspends any findings of guilt and places them on probation once they have completed their one-night sentence.
"The best deterrent for those people convicted of drunk driving is for them to lose their license," Marshall said. In a new crackdown on drunk drivers, the state's attorney's office is letting fewer persons plead guilty to the lesser charge of driging while impaired if they are first offenders, according to Marshall.
In Maryland, persons are considered drunk who have a 0.15 per cent alcohol level in their blood system. The maximum penalty for a person convicted of drunk driving is one year in prison, a fine up to $1,000 or both, in addition to the loss of the individual's license.
Femia says the people who come before him in court of an second drunk driving charge will more than likely get the maximum penalty. "They'd better come prepared with a toothbrush, because they're going to be in that jail for a while," Femia said.
In Fairfax and Arlington Counties the charge for a first offender is usually reduced to reckless driving if the driver successfully complete a course in the Virginia Alcohol Safety Action Program (ASAP). The driver is fined somewhere between $50 and $150 and charged about $250 for the ASAP course, according to Arlington Commonwealth's Attorney James Almond.
IN Alexandria, first offenders generally plead guilty to reckless driving. Their licenses are revoked for six months and they must pay fines up to $500. Those who take part in classes sponsored by the state's Division of Alcoho services frequently win a reduction in their fines and sentences according to assistant City Attorney Paul Karney.
In Montgomery County's first offenders are usually sent to DWI school and are eventually placed on probation so that neither their driving nor police records reflect the original drunk driving charge, according to deputy State's Attorney Timothy E. Clarke.
A policy for first offenders similar to that of Montgomery County's exists in the District of Columbia.
Femia also sends most of those he sentences to jail to DWI sholl. HHE sentences to jail to DWI school. The course fost to the offender is $35.