The Ethan Couch story is a tough one for me, because you know I always like ragging on rich people. And it seems hard to read District Judge Jean Boyd's sentence any way other than as a get-out-of-jail-free card for a kid whose parents could afford to put him in a high-rent whiskey school.
But I don't know. Because we condemn everybody else's kid to violent prisons, does that mean it's unjust to let any one kid go?
The Texas juvenile justice system is way better now than it was six years ago when The Dallas Morning News and The Texas Observer exposed an appalling child rape scandal involving hundreds of state employees with criminal records of their own. Two state departments were collapsed into one; sentencing guidelines were changed to reduce overall youth prison population to a fourth now of what it was then; nonprofit groups like the Annie E. Casey Foundation and Texas Appleseed developed healthy roles as monitors from without.
But it's still a system you'd do anything on earth to keep your own kid out of. A story last year in The Amarillo Globe-News quoted Michele Deitch, a criminal justice expert at the Lyndon B. Johnson School of Public Affairs at UT Austin, as saying, "Youth on youth violence is still high and the use of pepper spray is unacceptably high. We need better gang management and early intervention."
Officials within the Texas juvenile justice system told the Globe-News that the new sentencing guidelines have had the effect of distilling the youth prison population down to a more violent few.
Bill Monroe, senior director of finance and technology at the Texas Juvenile Justice Department, said, "We are dealing with more violent children."
The paucity of mental health care for anyone including kids means that more kids with severe problems wind up in the juvenile justice system, according to state officials quoted in the story.
So here's what I'm thinking. Let's say I'm the parent of this rich drunk kid from Keller who pleaded guilty to killing four people in traffic while blind drunk. The kid already had a history of drunken driving, which I as his parent had failed to do anything about.
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And, look, all that stuff about the "affluenza defense" offered by his lawyers -- how his parents had failed to teach him right from wrong so it wasn't his fault? You just have to toss that stuff in the verbal Dumpster as the kind of courtroom trash-talk that lawyers say when they have no conceivable real defense to offer. I heard the same thing once in a case in Florida where the lawyers said the defendant teenagers had been scarred by callous suburban culture. The judge blew it off as the "fear of lawnmowers" defense.
Everybody knows it's junk. The real defense is: "This kid's parents can afford a very expensive whiskey school for him, so why toss him onto the human trash heap of a brutal state prison system? Maybe he can be saved by the whiskey doctors. Why not try?"
I know what the answer is. You should dump him onto the trash heap, because you dump everybody else's kid on the trash heap. And as one of the loved ones of the dead said on TV last night, "At some point there has to be justice."
I get all that. I believe all that. I'm just not convinced that justice is what we have to offer. And if I put myself in the shoes of Ethan Couch's parents, then, yes, I'm going to do whatever I can to keep him out. Maybe what the rest of us need to do is work to provide a more dignified and decent system of punishment for all kids.