County officials are applauding Virginia's new, tougher drunken driving laws, yet their praise is muted by concerns over the financial burden that mandatory sentencing requirements will impose on Fairfax.
The state reimburses the county for only a fraction of the $125 a night it costs to house, feed and guard an inmate at the Adult Detention Center. Sheriff Stan G. Barry (D) predicts that the new laws could increase the population of the 1,266-bed jail by as much as an average of 100 prisoners a night.
Among 25 drunken driving laws that took effect July 1, giving Virginia some of the most stringent drunken driving laws in the country, is one requiring that drivers with a blood alcohol content level of 0.15 or above be sentenced to at least five days of jail time. Under previous laws, jail time was served at the discretion of the judge. It was rarely imposed for first-time offenders. And even then, the county automatically cut time served in half for good behavior in an effort to relieve crowding at the jail.
"I think any laws that can help make streets safer are good," said Barry. "And it's going to benefit us as a society. But what people at the state level need to take into account is what it's going to cost localities."
Almost all the cost is shouldered by local taxpayers.
Virginia reimburses the county $6 a day for prisoners who spend 30 days or less in jail for violating state laws. About 10 percent of the jail population is serving time on state offenses of more than 30 days, instead of spending it in a state prison. For those prisoners, the state pays $14 a day.
In addition, state law sets a $1-a-day limit on how much the county can charge each inmate for room and board. Indigent prisoners who cannot pay the fees are not kept longer, but a record of their bill is maintained, and if they are arrested again, they can have any money on hand confiscated to pay what is due.
"The real shame is Fairfax County citizens are paying $125 a day, and we're losing over $100 a day on each of these prisoners," Barry said.
At a meeting of the Board of Supervisors last week, Chairman Gerald E. Connolly (D) complained about the disparity and vowed to seek legislation in Richmond next year that would have the state make higher payments to counties.
"It's a chronic problem with the state in every category," Connolly said. "They have historically underfunded human services, like mental illness and retardation."
Connolly said that the state formula for reimbursement discriminates against more affluent districts because it is based on income. He said Fairfax sends more than $2 billion a year to the commonwealth in income taxes and gets back 19 cents on the dollar.
The new drunken driving laws are only the latest example of localities being forced to assume the costs of state initiatives, he said.
"This is one example where the General Assembly, if it's going to change laws, however worthy, ought to provide funding to counties such as Fairfax County to cope with the costs of those changes," Connolly said.
The sheriff's department, which has a budget of $48 million, has been struggling with the cost of its jail for years. A new $64 million wing was only partially opened in 2000 because the department could not afford to hire deputies to staff it. Barry said many inmates are housed in cells with double bunks, and the county aggressively releases prisoners early on work-release for the last 10 days of their sentences to ease crowding.
"We'd pretty much hit a wall," he said. "We didn't have any options, then the DUI law took effect."
The impact has not been immediately visible. Drivers accused of driving drunk in early July will begin to appear in courtrooms later this month.
"Everybody knows it's going to be a pretty serious impact on the system," Barry said.