The political roots of mass incarceration

By Alan Bean

If you want to know how America became the incarceration nation, locking up six times as many of our citizens as most western democracies, look no further than this story.

I’ll admit it, my blood boils when I think of the reckless behavior of a pampered kid from a wealthy family destroying so many innocent lives.  And experience (and prejudice) leads me to suspect that an indigent defendant would not have fared nearly as well.

But you don’t change legislation in response to a single case.  This is always how it works in America.  The populous gets up in arms about an isolated case bristling with unusually bad facts.  Next, the politicians chime in with promises of vengeance.  They sense a political opportunity and fear the consequences of appearing soft.  Finally, bad laws are passed giving rise to a host of unintended consequences.

Hopefully this story will be long forgotten by the time legislators have a chance to exploit it.  But if a law is passed to ensure that rich kids are held accountable, the first to suffer will be the usual suspects from the wrong side of the tracks.

Would Texas be a safer place if the young man at the heart of this story had been sentenced to 20 years?  Inmates are released back into society in 95% of cases and generally re-enter the community as walking time bombs ticking loudly.  Prison crushes the human spirit–that is what it is designed to do.  We stopped talking about rehabilitation forty years ago.

The desire for revenge is natural and understandable, but it makes for incredibly bad public policy.  If you aren’t sure what I mean, read on . . .

Legislators, DA to push for changes in juvenile law


FORT WORTH — Officials with the Tarrant County district attorney’s office are pushing legislators to make changes in the Texas juvenile justice system after a Keller teen was given probation for a horrific drunken-driving crash that killed four.

The 10-year probationary sentence handed down by state District Judge Jean Boyd touched off a firestorm on social media and national news broadcasts.

Prosecutors had sought 20 years, and Boyd was criticized for issuing a light sentence to a 16-year-old whom defense attorneys said had been ignored and enabled by his wealthy parents.

The Star-Telegram typically does not identify juvenile defendants.

Prosecutors continue to explore their options regarding the case, said Melody McDonald, a spokeswoman for the district attorney’s office.

“We are not aware of an avenue for appeal,” she said. “However, we look forward to working with the next legislature to tighten up loopholes in the juvenile law.

“We have already been in contact with State Representative Charlie Geren, who is eager to assist us in this endeavor. It is premature to discuss specifics at this time.”

The Texas juvenile justice system traditionally favors rehabilitation over punishment and gives judges wide discretion on sentencing.

Geren, R-Fort Worth, said that although he believes in rehabilitation, he also believes that when a person kills four people, he should go to prison for some period.

“I’m working with the district attorney’s office to prevent what happened … from ever happening again,” Geren said.

“We’re looking at several different options and will be working with attorneys in the Tarrant County district attorney’s office to get the right language.”

The 16-year-old pleaded guilty to four counts of intoxication manslaughter and two counts of intoxication assault causing serious bodily injury.

He admitted to being drunk when he lost control of his pickup. He had seven passengers in his Ford F-350, was speeding and had a blood-alcohol level three times the legal limit, plus traces of Valium in his system, according to earlier testimony.

Killed were Breanna Mitchell of Lillian, whose car broke down the night of June 15 on Burleson-Retta Road near Burleson; Hollie and Shelby Boyles, who lived nearby and had gone outside to help; and Burleson youth minister Brian Jennings, a passer-by who had also stopped to help.

Prosecutors had asked that the youth be sentenced to 20 years in a state lockup. Defense attorneys recommended a lengthy probationary term and treatment at a rehabilitation facility near Newport Beach, Calif., that can cost more than $450,000 a year.

Attorneys said the teen’s parents would pay for the therapy.

Boyd has declined to comment.

Geren said he does not expect any legislation to be introduced until the next regular session begins in 2015. He said he does not know exactly how lawmakers would be able to change the statutes to achieve the desired outcome.

Attorney General Greg Abbott and state Sen. Wendy Davis, both of whom are running for governor, weighed in on Boyd’s decision, turning it into an overnight campaign issue.

“We’re still reviewing options in this case,” Jerry Strickland, a spokesman for Abbott, told The Associated Press. “However, in addition to that review, we are exploring any and all legislative changes that may address the penalties and punishment for such crimes.”

Davis, a Democrat from Fort Worth, said she wants to study changes that can be made from a “legislative perspective.”