Texas wants juvenile treatment, not prison

12/17/2013 6:32 PM

11/12/2014 4:18 PM

Local politicians have joined the outcry against giving a Keller 16-year-old anything less than hard prison time for his drunken crash that killed four people earlier this year.

Fort Worth’s state Rep. Charlie Geren and state Sen. Wendy Davis — the Democrat who’s running for governor — both say they want to see what the Legislature can do to change Texas law.

“I’m working with the district attorney’s office to prevent what happened … from ever happening again,” Geren said. He said he believes a person who kills four people should go to prison for some period.

Last week, District Judge Jean Boyd gave the teen in this case 10 years probation instead of sending him to a state juvenile lockup.

There is more than a bit of hypocrisy in what Geren and Davis are saying.

In the 2011 legislative session, both voted for sweeping change in the state’s juvenile justice system. The new law included as one of its top priorities “the use of community-based or family-based programs and services for youth over the placement or commitment of youth to a secure facility.”

Boyd’s sentence sends the Keller kid to a residential rehab facility for at least as long as he would be incarcerated if she had sent him to a state juvenile jail. By law — the same law that Geren and Davis voted for — Texas juvenile facilities can’t hold an offender past their 19th birthday.

Boyd’s sentence would have this kid under her court’s supervision for seven years longer than that.

Prosecutors sought a 20-year “determinate” sentence, legal language that means an offender can be sent to an adult prison after spending some of the sentence in juvenile system custody.

But such a plan would come back to the local sentencing court for approval. That’s the same court that will, under the probation sentence, exercise control over what the Keller teen does for the next 10 years.

Failure to meet the terms of his probation could land the teen in prison, either way.

Part of the outrage is because this teen might be sent to a residential rehab center in California, paid for by his wealthy parents to the tune of as much as $450,000 a year.

In fact, the Texas Juvenile Justice Department reports that parents pay for 7 percent of programs for juvenile offenders in Texas.

Local funds pay 36 percent of the cost, while general state aid picks up 37 percent.

The 2011 reforms shifted state funds to community programs, a total of $158.9 million in 2013 and budgets of $164.2 million in 2014 and $163 million in 2015.

State facilities got $156.1 million in 2013 and are due to get $150.7 million in 2014 and $139.1 million in 2015.

With those kinds of costs, dunning parents like these who apparently can afford to bear their child’s cost seems like not such a bad idea.

Still, the point of the protests in this case is more about punishment than it is treatment, just the opposite of what the Legislature called for in 2011.

The only exception in that law is “balancing the interests of rehabilitative needs (of the offender) with public safety.”

If the kid poses a continuing threat to the public, he should be locked up. Whether he’s locked up in a posh California center or in a Texas prison makes little difference in that calculation.

Juvenile justice in Texas is supposed to focus on the offender, not the offense. Local juvenile authorities have a responsibility to make sure this teen is never again a threat to the public, but they should have great leeway in how they do that.

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