Cover Story: DWI Treatment Court

By Jeff Atkinson - bio l email

CHARLOTTE, NC (WBTV) - Drunk behind the wheel.  Convicted drunk drivers are getting back on the streets.

They're not just putting lives in danger.  They're killing and maiming innocent people.

These drunk driving disasters aren't just a problem, they're an epidemic.  One time is too many, but it seems we happen to be seeing this a lot lately.

Howard Pasour has multiple DWI convictions.  He's now accused of killing a 17-year-old in a drunken crash in Gaston county.  Kirstie Pienta is suspected of mowing down three people on 7th street in Charlotte.  And just this week, Brian Swindle pleaded guilty to second degree murder in a drunk driving fatality in Cleveland county.  He was drunk behind the wheel when he caused the crash that killed an 18-year-old girl in 2009.

There is a program that is making some in-roads with this epidemic.  It's a simple concept.  If alcoholism is a disease, and many would agree that it is, take those chronic DWI offenders and in addition to sentencing them also treat them for the disease.

"It works and it's changed lives."  It was Phil Howerton's idea 13 years ago.  The Mecklenburg district court judge, working with others in the court system, introduced the first DWI treatment court in the nation.  It was started in Mecklenburg county in 1997.

After sentencing repeat DWI defendants with non-felony convictions Judge Howerton would offer them something novel - a chance to go sober for good.

He says, "It's a combination of out-patient treatment, close supervision.. screening for use of alcohol or drugs and it's participation in Alcoholics Anonymous. A.A. is one of the great miracle programs of the 20th Century."

The case of Laura Fortenberry, the 17-year old killed last week in Gaston county allegedly at the hands of Howard Clay Pasour who was convicted three times of drunk driving.. highlights a problem North Carolina has in dealing with repeat DWI offenders.

Passour could have faced up to two years in jail for his third conviction, but because of overcrowded prisons judges many times will sentence defendants like Pasour for 30 days in jail plus probation.

It's Howerton's assertion that defendants like these are alcoholics, and in many cases it's not long before they're back on the road driving drunk.

He comes to the subject honestly.  "I guess because I'm in recovery and I know it works. I've been sober for 21 years now. 21 plus."

Howerton's answer-- treatment - that works.  In DWI court defendants have to appear before the judge once a month; complete alcohol treatment; and be tested weekly for drugs and alcohol; in addition to attending three AA meetings a week.  A case manager stays in touch with them through the whole time.

In the 13 years of the program Howerton says the recidivism rate - those who lapse back into alcoholism - is remarkable:  two-to-3 percent.  There are now 500 DWI courts in the U.S.  And it began in Mecklenburg.

"It works and it's changed lives," Howerton says.  "I can't tell you how many people come up to me who've been in these programs and have said you've saved my life.. and I'll be forever grateful."

Those who go through the DWI court still have to serve their sentence, DWI court doesn't get them out of that.  The program is voluntary.

There are three DWI courts in North Carolina, two are in Mecklenburg county.  But Judge Howerton, who's now retired, is advocating state lawmakers expand it.

The program could be funded, he says, through adding a $50 fee to every defendant convicted of DWI.   That could raise up to $3 million to fund the court statewide.

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