"Justice Undone" -- Texas Lawmakers Mull Tougher Punishments After "Affluenza" Case

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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.

See also: For Those Who Drink, Drive and Kill, "Affluenza" Outcome Isn't Uncommon, Especially If They Have Money

"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.

See also: Ethan Couch Should Have Gone to Prison, but Justice? There's No Justice for Texas Kids.

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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12 comments
ozonelarryb
ozonelarryb

The law already gave sentencing flexibility. Judge brain froze.

So explain the dichotomy: outrage here over weak sentencing for homicide v bloodlust for ridiculous minimums for small amounts of drugs.

It is we the citizens who can't be rational, and vote in pandering twits to do our muddied bidding.

So, think about it this way: you are way more likely to suffer damily tragedy at the hands of alcohll tham drugs. But where do you put your effort?? Santa, pass us that bottle will ya.

DurtyTexMex
DurtyTexMex

Dewey just wants in on that family's cash ;)

ruddski
ruddski

"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"

And yet, not a peep about the White House....

kayo
kayo

Is Dewhurst lying or did his old man really get killed by a drunk driver?  Either way this smacks of crass political opportunism.  I didn't like Richie Rich's sentence either, but mandatory sentencing isn't the answer.  The rich and the well-connected will always manage to end up at Club Fed, or enjoy House Arrest, or wiggle out of it altogether.

ruddski
ruddski

Every time there's a school shooting, politicos are calling for gun laws in hours.

When the nut shot gabby giffords, libs charged Palin with her murder in less than 12 hours. Many still do, no matter the facts.

Political opportunism?

kayo
kayo

@ruddski I didn't approve of those opportunistic antics either, ruddski.

Daniel
Daniel

@ruddski  Only an idiot would disagree with you that crass political opportunism calls both parties home. But this -- "Many still do, no matter the facts" -- is especially rich coming from a present-day conservative, let alone one who regularly appoints himself apologist for the Tea Party.


For the record, mass shootings in the United States are only very rarely motivated by politics. 

ruddski
ruddski

Except the most recent shooting, he was a leftie so let's just drop it.

ruddski
ruddski

I hope so, to do otherwise would suggest mental illness.

ruddski
ruddski

Is it wrong for me to mention the liberal tarring of Palin for no reason whatsoever, and to suggest some still believe she caused it?

Why?

kduble
kduble

@RTGolden1@Daniel We also need to ban the sale of any gun to a criminal or a mentally ill person, and this verification needs to take place before a gun changes hands.

RTGolden1
RTGolden1 topcommenter

@DanielYou are correct, Daniel, that shootings are rarely motivated by politics.  However, the liberal knee-jerk reaction to a mass shooting is to blame the 2nd amendment, conservatives and gun owners outright; none of which need shoulder the blame either. What we need is better mental healthcare in this country, which liberals refuse to acknowledge and conservatives refuse to pay for.

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