The Prince George's County Council, in an effort to encourage prison sentences for drunk drivers, voted yesterday to open a separate detention facility where people convicted of drunk driving will serve time and receive alcoholism counseling.
Prince George's will be the first jurisdiction in Maryland and the first on the East Coast to establish such a program, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.
Council member James Herl, sponsor of the measure, said it resulted from citizen outcry over the number of people convicted of drunk driving who were merely being fined by judges and sent to traffic school as a penalty. A county task force of judges, officials and citizens first suggested a separate facility and funding was approved by the Maryland General Assembly at its last session.
Herl said that judges have become increasingly reluctant to send drunk drivers to the Prince George's County Detention Center because of overcrowded conditions there and allegations of widespread incidents of rape and violence.
In addition, the county is under court order to keep the number of prisoners there to 425 at any given time until a new jail is built.
A site for the separate detention facility has not yet been selected, although county officials are considering using the current school board offices in Upper Marlboro, adjacent to the county jail. The school board is scheduled to vacate those offices in the fall.
The county has hired a consultant from the South Carolina firm of Carter & Associates to recommend a site and work out other details, such as whether the facility should have bars and operate like any other jail, or whether it should be only for first offenders or for people who are sentenced to spend only their weekends in jail.
The consultant's report, which is expected to cost about $15,000, should be finished in September. Herl said the facility should be open within a year.
The facility will be funded through a $500,000 bond approved by the General Assembly. It was authorized to help the county renovate an existing building to serve as a combination rehabilitation and detention center for drunk drivers. The legislature intends to use the Prince George's program as a pilot for the state, Herl said.
Only two other jurisdictions in the country have similar programs--Baton Rouge, La., and Kane County, Ill.--according to the traffic safety administration.
The Prince George's program will be operated by the Department of Corrections. It will be supported eventually through the fines levied against drunk drivers, Herl said.
Ernest J. Zaccanelli, chief assistant sheriff in the county, said that last year 2,600 drunk-driving cases were tried in county courts. It could not be determined yesterday how many of those cases resulted in convictions.
"We want the public to know we're not just slapping drunk drivers on the hand and letting them go. We're telling them they're going to face stiff penalties," Herl said.
In other action, the council voted to prohibit the sale of junk food by mobile vendors to anyone under 18 before 10 a.m. on school days. Council member Hilda Pemberton, who sponsored the measure, said she has received several complaints from people in her district in the Seat Pleasant area that youngsters were using their lunch money to buy cake, candy and gum from vendors who park their trucks or vans near schools and bus stops on school days.
Prince George's is the first local jurisdiction to pass such a law.
The council also passed two new laws that will make it more difficult for hot tub and spa establishments to open in the county.
One of the measures will require hot-tub operators or spa proprietors to seek special zoning exceptions to open businesses in the county. Currently, such establishments are allowed in areas zoned for commercial uses.
The other law requires all hot-tub establishments to be licensed and conform to several regulations, ranging from the location of showers to the number of parking spaces outside.
Cal Klausner, co-owner of Making Waves, a hot-tub spa in College Park, accused the council of trying to shut down "a legitimate fun-type business."
He said Making Waves intends to open a second facility in two weeks in the Marlow Heights shopping center, and added that his company might take the county to court over the new laws.
The council also approved several appointments, including four to the Washington Suburban Sanitary Commission and the Maryland-National Capital Park and Planning Commission, two of the most important commissions in suburban Maryland. The council appointed former council member Ann Lombardi and attorney Alexander Williams Jr. to the WSSC and former council member Roy I. Dabney Jr. and citizen activist Margaret (Madge) Yewell to the park and planning commission.