I'd like to respond to The Post's article about me in the Metro section on Aug. 25, "Montgomery Judge Avoids Jailing Drunk Drivers." While this reply may not be as sensational as the story, it has the virtue of suggesting to the public that a judge can be aware of the needs of society and attempt to fulfill them without unnecessarily destroying all of the lives that are on the defense side of the court table.
I do not suggest, nor do I practice the proposition, that jails serve no useful purpose in our society. They are very important and a necessary tool in handling crime and criminals. I have not hesitated in imposing even a life sentence, when the protection of society required, when we have needed insulation from those who seriously threaten community safety.
At the same time it is important that we are aware of the purpose of our jails, their capabilities and their costs. Today we apparently are satisfied if they are just minimally humane, since we no longer have the control or the resolve to make these overpopulated institutions rehabilitative. Useful occupational facilities are well nigh nonexistent.
Jails in Montgomery County cost approximately $35 per day per prisoner just for housing, feeding and management. A single jail cell costs from $35,000 to $85,000 just for construction, depending on whether it is built to federal or state standards. Our American jail system now has the third-largest prisoner population in the world -- surpassed only by the Soviet Union and South Africa.
To our jails we indiscriminately assign any and every adult who is arrested for violating the rules by which society is run. We arrest and jail drug users, child molesters, rapists and alcoholics -- all in the same prison population. And fully one-third of that jail population consists of people between 18 and 25 years of age. Our recidivism rate hovers between 60 and 70 percent, indicating that the vast majority of our convicts return to jail after serving their terms.
Of the three objectives for sentencing those convicted of crime -- deterrence, punishment and rehabilitation -- jails fulfill only one: punishment.
Approximately 25 percent of the local prison population consists of people whose offenses were alcohol-related. Some might be only overnight prisoners, to be released on bond pending trial. Some might be weekenders. Some might be short-term inmates: from three days to six months to 18 months.
Each year Montgomery County is closing several schools built during the baby boom years. What happens to the schools? Sometimes they are "rented out" to religious or semi-public institutions at a fraction of an ordinary rental. Why not convert some of these schools into residential rehabilitation centers?
The classrooms could be subdivided into dormitory rooms. Bathroom and shower facilities are there. There are cafeterias, gymnasiums, athletic facilities indoors and outdoors. There are conference rooms and seminar rooms and meeting rooms. And the conversion costs would be no more than 40 percent of the cost of building a jail.
How to use them?
If a person is caught driving under the influence of alcohol, immediate arrest and transportation to a rehab center. The committing magistrate can fix bond until trial date. First conviction: a minimum but mandatory 30-day sentence; more if the seriousness of the offense requires it. The prisoner goes to work daily from the center, but without being allowed to drive. Public transportation, family or friends or co-workers are the only means of locomotion. He or she returns every night and is subjected to either Breathalyzer or urinalysis testing. A bad test and the sentence is automatically doubled. All salary and pay from employment goes to therehab center, which deducts room and board payments and remits the balance to the inmates' families or landlords and creditors, as required.
Second offenders get six months' mandatory confinement, third offenders at least one year.
Every evening, there are mandatory therapy sessions. There is exercise and recreation time; there is visiting time -- especially on weekends.
The cost to the public treasury is measurably less than jail confinement costs and jail construction costs.
Therapy would be available in the centers, whereas it is not readily available in jails. There simply aren't enough therapists or spaces for in- house jail treatment, and the waiting list for available space in these programs is so long that only longer-term prisoners (60 days or longer) can avail themselves of the programs. If one who gets 30 to 60 days in a rehab clinic can learn his or her lesson, and when appropriate, become an alcoholic in remission and be safe on the streets, why label such a person a "convict?"
There are some cities experimenting with variations on this theme. Some use an older local hotel for weekend alcohol residential therapy uses. Prince George's County has just opened a residential treatment center.
Is such a program punitive? Of course it is. Any deprivation of freedom is punitive. Will it deter drunken driving? Properly publicized, it should. Rehabilitative? Obviously more so than any program involving straight jail time. And jail time is always an alternative when the "inmate" leaves without permission, disobeys court orders or violates later probation.
We can't let some people drink and drive. There are too many casualties and dangers. But neither can we keep building more and more costly jails.