Bud Kennedy

Blame Ethan Couch, not probation or ‘affluenza’ line

Ethan Couch is seen outside juvenile court in December 2013 in Fort Worth.
Ethan Couch is seen outside juvenile court in December 2013 in Fort Worth. The Associated Press

If anybody should be maddest at Ethan Couch, it should be every other teenager in Texas.

Because Couch, 18, blew his chance at a real life and then went on the run, it will be tougher than ever to argue for substance-abuse treatment and probation for other juvenile offenders.

Nobody around here wants to talk about the benefits of juvenile probation right now. We’re furious with Ethan and his mother Tanya, 48.

Both are gone from their home in far northwest Tarrant County near Eagle Mountain Lake and from the family’s other homes.

They’re hiding from the county probation officers who are supposed to enforce the rules of his 10-year juvenile sentence for a 2013 drunken-driving crash near Burleson that killed four.

It’s easy to forget now. But under now-retired state District Judge Jean Boyd’s sentence, Couch did not walk free.

He was ordered to treatment and probation, a rigid reporting system that some teenagers hate more than prison.

In the news report on Couch’s sentencing, one of his attorneys said as much.

Lawyer Scott Brown said Couch would have to be “under the thumb of the justice system for the next 10 years.”

Prosecutors had asked for 20 years in juvenile and adult detention, but juveniles are rarely transferred to adult prisons.

And we also forget this now.

But Couch’s substance-abuse treatment and probation wasn’t something his parents bought, or something Boyd thought up.

Under Texas law, most juveniles are supposed to be sent to treatment. Judges aren’t supposed to lock them up, unless there is a high risk of violence.

Specifically, the law calls for “treatment, training, and rehabilitation that emphasizes the accountability and responsibility of both the parent and the child for the child’s conduct.”

In 2011, 60 percent of the teenagers sent to detention centers wound up getting arrested again within a year. It works better if teenagers are never sent there in the first place.

Boyd’s sentence was typical in Texas, even with a psychologist’s offhand comment in the penalty phase about Couch’s “affluenza.”

Oh, and we forget this, too: There was no “affluenza defense.”

The psychologist’s comment was an aside in explaining that Couch had no sense of right and wrong and his parents taught him, “If it feels good, do it.”

At the time, the suggestion was to send Couch somewhere far from his parents, to a secure facility with rules, for treatment. Instead, he wound up receiving basic state care at the North Texas State Hospital in Vernon.

(What makes all this even more infuriating is that you and I picked up most of the bill for his $715-a-day treatment there.)

So stop blaming judges, psychologists or the Texas court system.

As an adult, Couch is now solely responsible for staying in touch with probation officers.

He had a great gift from the people of Texas and every chance in the world to fulfill his probation terms humbly, gratefully and responsibly.

Nobody is to blame for his failure but Ethan Couch.

Bud Kennedy: 817-390-7538, bud@star-telegram.com, @BudKennedy. His column appears Sundays, Wednesdays and Fridays.

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