Recently, in my home State of Texas, we saw how creative lawyering can result in, what appears to most to be, a travesty of justice. I'm talking about the case of a 16 year old defendant who, in an intoxication manslaughter case tried in Tarrant County, Texas, received 10 years of probation for the tragic deaths of four individuals. His defense? The money made him do it. The young man's lawyers, essentially argued that the affluent lifestyle enjoyed by his family resulted in a lack of parental supervision and a tendency to experiment in drugs and alcohol in order to numb the pain of his wealthy existence.
The “affluenza” defense is ridiculous and has received enormous media attention. But there is another extremely important issue that this case has brought to the forefront: The lack of options for juvenile offenders who suffer from alcohol and/or drug abuse and dependency issues and very often mental health issues as well.
And while the probation vs. incarceration debate has been the outrage of the chattering class in this case, it is important to understand that judges across the nation struggle every day to operate in a juvenile justice system that requires them to place the “best interest of the child” above the instinct to punish. That is simply an impossible task if judges do not have the ability to address those “best interests of the child.” I am not defending this case or this sentence. The fact is most juvenile offenders don’t have unlimited financial resources, and there is a dangerous lack of treatment alternatives available to juveniles.
Done correctly, even a 10 year probation sentence can, and should, provide retribution to society and victims. It should result in constant monitoring and supervision of the offender and a thorough assessment to determine what mental health, alcohol and/or drug abuse and dependency issues the offender may be dealing with. Treatment should be mandated to attempt behavioral change. History has demonstrated that incarceration alone does little to ensure a re-offense doesn’t occur and affect behavioral change.
What we desperately need are good assessment tools, fully staffed, comprehensive treatment facilities and a society that stops viewing underage drinking as a rite of passage and looks at it for what it is – a crime. Further, it is an opportunity for early intervention in some cases. Identification and treatment of juveniles should be done at the first sign of trouble. If we have any hope of turning juvenile offenders into productive members of society we must change our way of doing business – both in the criminal justice system and at home. We have to shift from being our children's friends, to being their parents. The truth is, positive parent role models are a child’s greatest chance for health and success. This “affluenza” case resulted in a senseless loss of life and tremendous pain. It should never have happened. As a society we must do more for juvenile offenders in their first interaction with the justice system to prevent senseless loss of life.
The Honorable Michael R. Fields
Criminal Court #14, Harris County, TX
*The views and opinions expressed in this blog are solely those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Century Council or any Century Council member.*