A Tarrant County, Texas, judge was RIGHT in saying a teen who murdered four while driving intoxicated wouldn't get treatment while incarcerated. But the judge was gravely mistaken for punishing the murderer with probation. In Wisconsin, where I grew up, we have a saying: You can't make ice cream out of cow shi... And here's why nobody is making ice cream this week.
First, the case. CBS Dallas-Fort Worth reported a judge sentenced the 16-year-old teenager to 10 years probation for an intoxicated driving crash that killed four people in June. Hollie and Shelby Boyles had left their home to help Breanna Mitchell, whose SUV broke down. Brian Jennings, a youth pastor, was driving past the mother and daughter and pulled over to help. That’s when investigators say the Ethan Couch slammed into everyone. Couch admitted he was drinking and driving. At the time of the crash his blood alcohol was three times the legal limit.
Eric Boyles, a North Texas man who had two family members killed in the crash, walked from the court and tried to speak through the tears. “We had over 180 years of life taken, future life, not 180 years lived, but 180 years of future life taken and two of those were my wife and daughter.”
Defense attorney Scott Brown said, “There is nothing the judge could have done to lessen the suffering for any of those families.” Lawyers had argued that the boy’s parents should share the blame for the crash, because they gave him everything he wanted. The teenager’s attorneys pleaded for a sentence that involved therapy in California, at cost $450,000 a year, rather than years behind bars.
“She [judge Jean Boyd] fashioned a sentence that is going to keep him under the thumb of the justice system for the next 10 years,” Brown said. “And if he doesn’t do what he’s supposed to do, if he has one misstep at all then this judge or an adult judge when he’s transferred can then incarcerate him.”
Eric Boyles didn’t agree with the judge’s sentence or the assertion that therapy is what the young perpetrator needed. The victims families were hoping for closure. “Today could have been a good start at that, unfortunately the wounds that it opened only makes the healing process that much greater and more difficult,” Boyles said.
During sentencing, Judge Boyd noted that Jennings would not get the treatment he needed while incarcerated. And that is an unfortunate and expensive truth about the corrections system. I've written a book on it, reported on it, and I have been on the inside as an offender. People can and do get better in corrections' drinking programs, but it is rare. It is not treatment on the inside, it is mistreatment.
No broadly conceived treatment program for offenders exists today. The 12-step-oriented programs are kept at arms' length because of their spiritual leaning, even though their success rate is arguably better than all else.
(Some of the observations that follow come from What the Early Worm Gets, my 2010 book on coerced programs.) Sensory deprivation is the ONLY way for an educated person to avoid the rampant anti-sobriety messages in jail. Forty to fifty percent of the time in jail is spent scheming to get drugs or alcohol into jail, planning to deal or drink or get high on the outside on release day, or glorifying how they used drugs and alcohol (and people). It is a swap meet for bad ideas. This lively chit chat takes place between sleeping and watching cartoons or gambling. One face is worn during the program, and another anti-sobriety face is worn through the rest of the time in the facility.
The library was a refuge of sorts. The library did have several good books on sobriety and alcoholism and recovery. The books were not as popular as the Urban fiction or the hip-hop magazines. For example, Dr. Bob and the Good Oldtimers is a classic Alcoholics Anonymous book. It was checked out only eight times between 1995 and October 2009 and only once from April 2005 to October 2009.
Sadly, the anti-sobriety messages also were distributed by the program staff at the jail. They permit offenders who had their probation revoked – even dope dealers and those without any documented need for alcohol treatment – priority access to the taxpayer-funded alcohol programs. These are the same people who failed drug and alcohol tests after already having been released early once! Not once is any priority given to people who actually want to take the publicly funded programs. And that is the crux of recovery: A person has to WANT to change. Coerced treatment is a well-documented failure.
Yet, jails/prisons will always have the required headcount in those programs. Sometimes inmates cannot even get past the waiting list. Are we fixing the right people?
And are we fixing them at all? I struggle with this flawed system because we’re told to be sober by people who have no clue what it is like to be Alcoholic, and we’re told to succeed in sobriety among people who have no intention of embracing it.
We succeed in real recovery when we find a reason—a meaning—in sobriety. In jail- and prison-run programs you’re instructed to be happy when what we really need is a reason to be happy. It’s like having your picture taken. You can be told to say, “Cheese.” But the great pictures are when the smile is one you had reason to wear. You wear a smile when you learn to cope with shame and guilt. Prison works on the premise that you will be shamed into compliance.
In an exit interview the program director for the Corrections alcohol program I was in admitted two things. She said, “This is the only exposure most inmates get for alcohol problems,” and in practically the next sentence added, “On average a person has 13 programs before sobriety.” Not recovery, but sobriety. I don’t think these two facts are unrelated. If they go through 13 programs, you pay 13 times. Could the money be better used in prevention and education outside the fences?
Corrections is in the role of warehousing humans with varying levels of Antisocial Behavior Disorders. Sociopaths. Dr. Marc Schuckit, author of “Alcohol & Sociopathy: Diagnostic Confusion,” in the Quarterly Journal of Studies on Alcohol, put it this way. “It is necessary to distinguish between the alcoholic who engages in a limited sphere of antisocial behavior and of the antisocial who abuses alcohol as part of his behavior. The process and prognosis of these different varieties are distinct. (Ironically, the issue of Dr. Schuckit’s article I accessed was in a corrections’s own library, stamped, “Bureau of Program Services.” Perhaps they hadn’t yet gotten around to reading the 1973 article, as they make no effort to make such a distinction. Why, because corrections is in the business of warehousing sociopaths. Not in the “treatment” business for a complex medical and biochemical disease like Alcoholism. The judiciary doles out the punishment. The jail’s role isn’t punishment, it is housing those who are being punished.
There's a corrections saying: “You don’t go there for punishment, you go there as punishment.” Corrections is no more equipped to handle real treatment than an auto mechanic is trained as a French pastry chef. They are two different disciplines. And you wouldn’t pay Mr. Mechanic for his cooking. But you are paying billions for ineffective programs run by corrections with your tax dollars with sometimes toxic results.
Couch, the intoxicated driving murderer in Texas, wasn't heading for treatment for an alcohol use disorder.
Now, on to the sentence... no ice cream there either._______
As long as the public appetite is in favor of incarcerating intoxicated drivers, should a judge have such wide latitude to dole out an alternative like Couch got: Probation? No. If the public thinks jail sentences are a deterrent for drinking and driving, that is the will of the public. I know several offenders through the course of my work who did not murder a soul or dent a fender and spent time behind bars.
No sentence will bring the dead to life... but someone did kill them. And they call them “crashes” instead of “accidents” because it was no accident. An impaired person decided to drive a one-ton weapon into four people when he turned the key in the ignition... he just hadn't hit them yet.
Do longer sentences act as a deterrent? Not likely. Alcohol-related traffic deaths rose nationwide from 2011 to 2012 according to National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) figures despite a slew of enhanced laws including stricter sentences. And guess what: As awful a place as it is, the environment just is not a deterrent. Not for people who like living that way. It isn’t much of a deterrent for the six or eight percent of us who have alcoholism either because, if we have no fear of drinking ourselves to death, prison isn’t going to scare us too much, either.
That said, the law was broken, and the public said Couch should be incarcerated for his crime, not sent to Lindsay Lohan's treatment center. At a minimum, the families got a really cold, harsh slap in the face with Couch's slap on the wrist.
The Criminal Justice system is full of painters when it comes to jailing and rehabilitating intoxicated motorists. The real world’s treatment process, where there are consenting, active participants in the recovery process is full of eye doctors. A painter lets you see the world as he sees it. An eye doctor will let you see the world as it really is more clearly.
What we're seeing clearly in Texas is no ice cream, but something being spoonfed to the public and the surviving families that smells a lot like cow shiwww.alcohologist.com
Details on the third literary award for Every Silver Lining Has a Cloud, plus the new radio interview replay is available at alcohologist.com... and please read the new interview with Scott Stevens at Christoph Fisher Books. Mr. Fisher is an acclaimed international historical fiction novelist from the UK.