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State law traps the convicted behind the wrong bars

What's the difference between a jail and a prison?

If you've never been to either, you probably don't realize that they're two very different things in North Carolina.

Jails are only equipped for short-term stays, while criminal defendants are waiting on trial or waiting to be transferred to more permanent homes if they end up convicted. They simply don't have the same facilities as a prison.

For example, they don't have things that people think of as standard within prisons, like outside yards equipped with the appropriate number of guards and security fences so that prisoners can actually go outside. They also don't have other basics that prisoners locked away for the long term need to help them cope with the isolation imprisonment brings, like job training programs, education courses and drug and alcohol addiction counseling. They don't even have weight racks or basketball courts so that prisoners can exercise outside of their cells.

However, a quirk in North Carolina's legal system is sending convicted prisoners to unequipped and unprepared jails for much longer sentences than those jails were designed to handle.

Here's how the glitch happened:

  • The bill known as "Laura's Law" passed in 2010. It requires sentences from one to three years for drunk drivers with repeat convictions.
  • At nearly the same time, the state passed it's Justice Reinvestment Act. That act focused partially on reducing the size of prison populations. One of the ways it does that is by sending those convicted of misdemeanors to jails instead.

As a result of those two events, defendants who have racked up multiple counts of driving while intoxicated or under the influence of drugs -- sometimes from the same accident -- can be sentenced to multiple consecutive three-year sentences. Because all the sentences are misdemeanors, they end up warehoused in jails that don't know what to do with them.

For prisoners caught in the situation, the time they serve isn't as bad as the conditions they serve it under. Many also go without court-ordered rehabilitation programs because the jails don't have them.

Everyone should be aware of how serious an issue drunk driving charges really are -- and just how life-altering and severe the consequences of a conviction can be. If you've been charged with drunk driving, an attorney can help you understand your legal options.

Source: The Marshall Project, "Nine Years With No Sunshine," Joseph Neff, Jan. 23, 2018

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