On Thursday, Lieutenant Governor David Dewhurst became the latest Texas politician to insert himself into the debate over the sentence handed down to 16-year-old "affluenza" victim Ethan Couch, who killed four people during a drunken joy ride earlier this year. Days after gubernatorial candidates Greg Abbott and Wendy Davis chimed in with expressions of outrage, Dewhurst has charged the Texas Senate with studying whether the punishment for intoxication manslaughter offenses is adequate.
"Having lost my own father to a drunk driver in my youth, I have a particular interest in this issue because I know the devastation it causes," Dewhurst said. "I am wholeheartedly committed to the safety of our citizens and believe that recent cases indicate existing sentencing options may leave justice undone."
Tapping into public outrage over a controversial criminal case is a time-honored political technique. The danger arises when this type of populist politicking translates into actual legislation, which tends to be terrible.
"Apostrophe laws" as they're known -- almost invariably, they are slugged as "[Mistreated child]'s law" -- proliferated during the '90s and aughts as a way to memorialize young crime victims and, ostensibly, deliver justice.
Their fundamental flaw is that these laws are based on anecdotes rather than data, which is a monumentally stupid approach to developing public policy.
None of the people Couch killed back in June were children, the youngest being a 21-year-old college student, Shelby Boyles. The impulse to pass a law, however, is the same.
Dewhurst doesn't specify what he wants the legislature to come up with, saying only that "existing sentencing options may leave justice undone."
But is that true? District Judge Jean Boyd could have sentenced Couch to 20 years in prison. She decided it was in the best interest of Couch and of society to send him to rehab, an outcome that is not uncommon in intoxication manslaughter cases, adult or juvenile.
A bad ruling, perhaps, but would it be better to take away a judge's discretion and enact mandatory minimum sentences in intoxication manslaughter cases? It might be satisfying, but Texas would wind up paying good money to put more people in prison. It's exactly that concern that's stalled Dustin's Law, a similar measure that's being considered in Tennessee, according to USA Today.
It's probably a good thing that Couch's sentence came down when the legislature wasn't in session. This way, passions will have cooled and lawmakers will have had plenty of time to mull things over by the time they get around to voting on anything. After all, there are more productive outlets for channeling public outrage. Improving Texas' beleaguered juvenile justice system so that it rehabilitates kids like its supposed to would be a good place to start.
Send your story tips to the author, Eric Nicholson.
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