Iowa is playing it tough with drunk drivers. But can the state afford it?
B Y G E O F F S . F E I N
When legislators changed the drunk driving laws last
year, the idea was to punish those who are a threat to public safety. Only
first-time offenders with blood alcohol levels below .15 would be eligible for deferred
judgments. If a driver had a prior conviction, he or she would go to jail for seven
days. Anyone stopped for an OWI who refuses to take a blood alcohol test or tests
above .10 automatically loses their license, regardless of a conviction.
"It's a thing nobody learns about unless they're picked up for an OWI," says Assistant Attorney General Peter Grady.
What legislators didn't do, however, was consider the costs.
The Division of Criminal and Juvenile Justice Planning estimates that by 1999, when the full effect of the law will be felt, an additional 3,128 jail terms statewide will be imposed annually. Counties will be forced to build additional jail space; there are currently only 2,651 jail beds available and most of those are taken. It's estimated the cost to construct one bed is between $45,000 and $55,000. Counties will have to dig deep to find the dollars to expand or build new jails for future inmates. Some jails are already beginning to feel the crush of the get-tough stance.
Polk County officials expect to be running at or over capacity this spring, even with the addition of a second jail. Other counties are dealing with overcrowding on a daily basis.
The 100-year-old Iowa County Jail holds 12 prisoners, but with the changes in the OW1 laws it has been holding about 20.
Inmates are either given cots or sleep on mattresses on the floor. Disciplinary problems are becoming more common.
To cope with overcrowding, Iowa County Sheriff Jim Slockett says inmates are being sent to other jails. At a cost of $60 per day, plus the cost of using a deputy to transport inmates, it's beginning to take a bite out of Slocketts budget.
"It's strained our office. We're starting to hurt," Slockett says.
In Plymouth County, the jail has already gone over its meal budget for inmates.
"We budgeted $9,000 a year for meals and by April 11 exhausted that," says Sheriff Mike Van Otterloo. "We're 50 percent over capacity. That's partly attributed to OWI."
Lee County has leased trailers to ease jail overcrowding. Sheriff Dave Ireland says it's a temporary fix because the funding for the trailers runs out in three years.
To avoid running at capacity each week offenders sentenced to jail must call beforehand to see if space is available.
"It's like booking a hotel room," Ireland says.
Lt. Fred Rouse of the Warren County Sheriff's Department says cells built to hold five inmates now hold seven because of the increases in OWI cases.
"We're running at capacity or over every day," Rouse says. "It causes stress on deputies and on the inmates packed in together."
If arrests and convictions increase in Warren County, Rouse doesn't know where inmates will be held. County officials there don't plan to build any new jails. He adds there is no way to prepare for the Legislature's actions.
"There is very little we can do. We just can't add two to three bunks. All we can do is take it."
April 8, 1998, Page 6