A Glitch in the Law Is Trapping Drunk Drivers in Jail Without Treatment

More than 170 people with DWI sentences of two years or more are serving their time in North Carolina jails with little or no access to help—or sunshine.
January 24, 2018, 6:15am
Brunswick County Jail in Bolivia, North Carolina. More than 170 people with DWI sentences of two years or more are serving their time in the state’s jails. Photo by the author

This story was published in partnership with the Marshall Project.

Brandon Hewett wants to go to prison.

There, he might have a shot at fresh air, sunshine, and substance-abuse treatment. Instead, the 38-year-old Hewett is serving a nine-year drunk driving sentence in a North Carolina county jail, a facility not designed or equipped for long-term stays.

Hewett is among a growing number of DWI offenders serving multi-year sentences in North Carolina’s jails, snagged between a reform that cut the prison population and a popular law that cracked down on repeat drunk drivers.

More than 170 people with DWI sentences of two years or more are serving their time in the state’s jails, which were built to detain people awaiting trial or serving short sentences. Unlike prisons, jails have little or no programs for drug treatment, education and job training, and they lack outside yards with basketball courts, ball fields, and weight racks.

Hewett, who admits he is an alcoholic, has a 20-year record of alcohol and traffic violations. He said he was shocked when his guilty plea led to nine years in the jail, a one-story block structure at a corner of the Brunswick County office complex. He glimpses the sky for a few minutes a day when he helps unload meals from a truck. The hardest part of the sentence is the prospect of serving nine years with no time outside.

“It’s inhumane,” he said. “They treat me like a murderer.”

Hewett grew up in the country and worked on a dredge boat and as a roofer. He asked to work at the county animal shelter, about ten miles from the jail. The Brunswick County Sheriff’s Department runs the shelter and has employed inmates there. Sheriff John Ingram did not respond to requests for comment.

“I could keep ‘em clean, keep ‘em fed, keep ‘em watered,” Hewett said. “But they’re scared I might run.”

The road to Hewett’s nine-year sentence began in July 2010, when 17-year-old Laura Fortenberry was killed by a drunk driver with a history of DWI convictions.

The girl’s mother began campaigning for “Laura’s Law,” which called for mandatory prison sentences of 12 to 36 months for certain repeat offenders.

The bill had no opposition in the Republican-controlled legislature; the Democratic governor invited Laura’s mother to the bill-signing. The same year saw the passage of the state Justice Reinvestment Act, which, among other changes, reduced the prison population by sending most misdemeanor offenders to county jails, where they would serve a maximum of 300 days. In a later session, lawmakers amended the law to send everyone convicted of a misdemeanor to jail—which includes people sentenced under Laura’s Law.

Gregg Stahl, the director of government relations at the North Carolina Sheriffs Association, realized that these drunk drivers would be the longest serving jail inmates in modern history. Given their high risk of recidivism, they would need treatment.

“Should these inmates be encouraged to participate and complete a drug treatment program while incarcerated?” Stahl wrote in an internal 2014 memo. “What type of drug treatment program can be effectively delivered in a jail setting?”

The association director, Eddie Caldwell, said in an interview he doesn’t recall Stahl’s memo or discussion about it. He said it was the legislature’s job to decide the location and length of criminal sentences.

County sheriffs are paid $40 a day to house the misdemeanor offenders who used to go to state prison. The state pays the Sheriff’s Association $1 million a year to administer the program.

Guilford County, the state’s third largest, is one of the few jails to offer drug treatment. Major Chuck Williamson of the county sheriff’s office said 12 months has been the longest sentence served in the two jails and prison farm he oversees. Guilford County may boast the most programs of any jail, but Williamson said jails aren’t designed to handle long-term stays. There’s no law library. Training and education programs are limited.

“You can’t go outside,” he said. “If we saw someone with a three- or six-year sentence here, we’d probably be up in arms.”

Brandon Hewett is serving a nine-year drunk driving sentence in a North Carolina county jail. Photo courtesy of the Hewett family

Hewett’s problem with alcohol and driving dates to 1997, when the 18-year-old refused a Breathalyzer test at a traffic stop in Brunswick County, which sits on the Atlantic coast at the southeastern corner of North Carolina. He racked up three DWIs through 2013 and became eligible for Laura’s Law.

In February 2017, he pleaded guilty to two additional counts of DWI. Six days later, he was arrested for a third DWI. When he appeared in court in May to plead guilty to all three, he admitted that he was under the influence.

Judge James Bell gave him the maximum: three three-year terms to be served back to back. Bell ordered substance abuse treatment, which the jail does not offer.

Bell said his hands were tied. The law requires all people convicted of misdemeanors to go to jail.

“It’s hard to be easy on the drunk driving cases because the community wants to be tough on them,” Bell said. “Nine years at the jail is tough.”

A version of this article was originally published by the Marshall Project, a nonprofit news organization that covers the US criminal justice system. Sign up for the newsletter, or follow the Marshall Project on Facebook or Twitter.