PITTSBURGH, PA – Nearly 30 years after state legislators imposed stricter punishments for drunken drivers, an Allegheny County program allows them to serve mandatory jail terms in a hotel.
The county's DUI Alternative Jail Program, known to some as "DUI Hotel," is a three-day, three-night program held at two participating hotels. Offenders attend compulsory evaluations, alcohol-education programs and treatment sessions.
Proponents say it frees jail cells for more serious offenders. Detractors say it does nothing to keep drunken drivers from repeating their offenses. Some likened the program to a debtor's prison: Those who can afford the program go to a hotel, and those who can't afford it go to jail.
"The whole idea of sentencing people to jail is for safety -- for their own safety and for other people's safety. For anyone to have the idea that now that they've been caught, they can serve out their time in a hotel, rather than having the punishment imposed, is absolutely insane," said George E. Saurman, 86, a former seven-term state representative from Montgomery County who authored the legislation signed into law by former Gov. Dick Thornburgh in 1982.
"I can't see any motivation or justification for modifying the penalty," Saurman said. "It's inexcusable, as far as I'm concerned."
Allegheny County officials said 550 offenders completed the program in 2011. This year, 295 offenders did so by the end of July.
"From what I heard, it can be a little boring, but it beats jail," said Josh Lewis, 22, of West Mifflin as he paced outside the Holiday Inn Express recently, readying to serve his sentence. "I got lucky. I didn't want to do jail time."
The county makes the program available to first-time offenders with 72-hour jail sentences who are ineligible for Accelerated Rehabilitative Disposition, a program for non-violent offenders with limited or no criminal records.
Allegheny became the first county in Pennsylvania to adopt such a program in 2010. Officials in Westmoreland County are considering one.
"This was an avenue we pursued to have offenders meet their mandatory requirements and get their treatment education and reduce the burden on the system," said Ronald Seyko, deputy director of Allegheny County Adult Probation and Parole, which oversees the program.
Anna Duerr, a spokeswoman for Mothers Against Drunk Driving, said three days in a hotel is no deterrent to driving while intoxicated.
"There is no science to show that sentencing convicted drunk drivers to serve time in a hotel helps to stop repeat offenses," Duerr said.
MADD promotes the adoption of laws that require installation of ignition devices in vehicles belonging to DUI offenders. The devices require drivers to exhale into a tube before starting the car.
A study by the Atlanta-based Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said such devices reduce drunken driving repeat offenses by 67 percent.
Nationwide, the National Highway Safety Administration counted 10,228 drunken driving-related fatalities in 2010, down from 15,827 in 1991.
Allegheny County District Attorney Stephen A. Zappala Jr. said offenders who sign up for the alternative jail program are not enjoying room service and a spa.
"They call it a hotel, but your freedom is taken away," he said.
Drivers convicted of DUI must pay restitution and fines that can cost as much as $4,000, not including attorneys' fees, Zappala said.
Several criminal defense attorneys think the program benefits their clients because it requires them to miss only one day of work and allows them to complete sentencing requirements within days instead of weeks or months.
"Human beings can make mistakes, but that doesn't mean that we need to put them in jail and throw away the key," said Pittsburgh attorney David J. Shrager. "Driving under the influence is a serious crime, but (jails is) not necessarily the best place for these people to receive the treatment they need."
Shrager said most offenders eligible for the program are not bad people: "These generally are people who've made a bad decision. They don't really belong in jail."