In one scholar’s view, suburbs are protecting criminals

12/26/2013 5:24 PM

11/12/2014 3:35 PM

Those of you who are not regular readers of The New York Times may have missed a recent opportunity to learn what’s wrong with North Texas.

The Dec. 22 analysis was from an Oxford student who grew up in Dallas, graduated from an exclusive boys’ school, then Harvard (2012 Phi Beta Kappa, history and literature) and two years ago won the opportunity to study history (America’s relationship with Vichy France) in the United Kingdom as a Marshall scholar.

The problem with North Texas, writes James McAuley, is that we have become a society that supports too many exclusive suburbs supporting too many exclusive shopping areas with too many Cheesecake Factory outlets.

That’s how, McAuley writes, we ended up with a 16-year-old from a wealthy Keller-area family who got three-times-the-legal-limit drunk the night of June 15, loaded a bunch of friends into a big pickup, went speeding down Burleson-Retta Road and crashed into a disabled vehicle, killing four people.

More specifically, says the scholar from the vantage point of his mid-20s, we have a society that didn’t really care when a judge gave the 16-year-old 10 years probation for his crime instead of locking him away in a juvenile prison for a few years.

We’ve left outrage over this miscarriage to cable TV outrage specialists like Anderson Cooper and Nancy Grace, McAuley says through the bullhorn supplied by the Times, while we, to use a term offered by a defense psychologist at the 16-year-old’s sentencing hearing, have become an “affluenza” society.

Clearly, young McAuley has not been reading my mail. I’ve received dozens of letters from North Texans who are outraged by the 16-year-old’s probation and want to see him do hard time.

I’ve also received a fair amount of letters and calls from local readers who disagree with the Star-Telegram’s editorial stand in defense of District Judge Jean Boyd. It’s important, we believe, that Boyd was able to delve deeply into this case and determine the most appropriate sentence for the 16-year-old.

Mandatory sentences decided remotely by lawmakers working every two years in Austin are not appropriate for juvenile cases.

Granted, McAuley and other critics could not have found a more outlandish piece of psychobabble than “affluenza,” which aims to ascribe a type of moral innocence to people whose character has been warped by the evils of wealth and privilege.

Absolute hogwash. Even the 16-year-old’s defense attorney has disavowed the use of the term.

But it is no less absurd to write, as McAuley did and his Times editors apparently deemed within the bounds of fair comment, that the term and “relative local indifference to the role of wealth in insulating the guilty from justice illuminates how much of North Texas itself has been constructed for the purpose of insulating wealth from any unpleasant reality.”

It is one of the jobs of scholars to opine, sometimes from a point removed from society that allows greater insight. Others decide whether those thoughts have merit that’s at least equal to their weight in navel lint.

It is “perhaps most important” about this case, this scholar says, that “it is a metaphor for the dark side of suburban cosmology, for every other barricaded enclave like Keller — places that, if not entirely above the law, are somehow removed from it.”

No, what’s most important about this case is that it illustrates how Texas has moved away from the lock-’em-up view of juvenile justice in the 1980s and is capable of judging juvenile offenders individually, searching for the best way to keep society safe while reducing the role of lockups that turn offenders into hardened criminals.

Texas, whatever its suburban cosmology might be, can refuse to pile tragedy upon tragedy by adding to the ruin of another young life.

About Mike Norman

Mike Norman

@mnorman9

Take an issue that's full of sometimes-complicated details like Texas public school finance, throw in an element of urgency like the need for better transportation solutions in Dallas-Fort Worth, add a healthy helping of local interest spiced with some controversy and you have the perfect assignment for Mike Norman to examine in depth. Mike is the newspaper's editorial director.

Email Mike at mnorman@star-telegram.com.

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