Mandatory sentences not appropriate for juvenile cases

12/21/2013 12:00 AM

11/12/2014 3:30 PM

Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst has joined the crowd of people who want to see a Keller 16-year-old behind bars for a Tarrant County DWI crash that killed four people in June.

Not surprising for a political figure who faces a difficult re-election campaign. Tough-on-crime can get some votes.

But what Dewhurst is going for is much broader than this case. He would have the Legislature establish mandatory sentences, eliminating the judges who know cases best from taking part in the decision about who gets locked up and who doesn’t.

That’s a far more dangerous step than Texas should take.

“As with any crime in Texas, we must ensure justice is served,” Dewhurst said in a news release Thursday. He ordered the Senate Committee on Criminal Justice to study sentencing in intoxication manslaughter cases, saying he believes “recent cases indicate existing sentencing options may leave justice undone.”

Earlier this month, District Judge Jean Boyd sentenced the Keller kid to 10 years’ probation after he pleaded guilty to four counts of intoxication manslaughter and two counts of intoxication assault. Boyd is the presiding judge in Tarrant County’s juvenile court and has been on the bench 19 years.

She will require that the 16-year-old enter a residential treatment facility to deal with his substance abuse problem and other issues and live under court supervision for 10 years.

Dewhurst told the Senate committee to “review cases involving the imposition of probation rather than imprisonment or commitment for adult and juvenile intoxication manslaughter offenders” and to “make recommendations to ensure that intoxication manslaughter sentences include appropriate punishment levels, maintain public safety and serve to deter driving under the influence.”

In other words, let’s punish kids in these cases more than Boyd did.

Nothing the Legislature does will change the Keller kid’s sentence. Dewhurst is saying lawmakers, before they know anything at all about kids involved in future cases or the details of their lives or offenses, should decide that an intoxication manslaughter case must bring hard time.

Disregard everything that psychiatrists, psychologists and social scientists have learned during the past decade about juvenile brains, social development and quick rehabilitation potential. Lock ‘em up.

Toss out all we know about the near-certainty (a 73-percent recidivism rate) that kids sentenced to state juvenile justice facilities will turn out to be more difficult criminals and more costly problems to society in their future years.

Even set aside what we know about mandatory sentences filling up correctional beds and driving up costs for taxpayers.

Just shove judges aside, along with their ability to craft sentences to fit individual offenders. Do that in juvenile cases, for which the Legislature passed major reform laws in 2007 and 2011 aimed at driving down the number of kids who are incarcerated and treating them in community settings instead, a strategy proven to reduce juvenile crime.

Call committee meetings. Get agonizing, tearful testimony from family members who have lost loved ones to drunk driving crashes. Make it seem like the threat of being locked up is going to deter teenagers from drinking, despite their immature thought patterns that give them a locked-in feeling of invincibility.

Do that so the lieutenant governor and some lawmakers can make themselves appear to be tough on crime and get votes.

That’s both bad policy and a perversion of the political process.

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