Addendum: More About Punishment

Over on the Harris County Criminal Lawyers Association’s Reasonable Doubt blog, I wrote a post regarding sentencing in this country and how it’s time to have a national discussion about fairness of punishment.

By way of an update, the infamous “Affluenza Teen,” Ethan Couch, was apprehended in Mexico and sentenced to 180 days in prison for each of the four people he killed. Of course, he was moved from a maximum security prison because, according to Sheriff Dee Anderson,

“We all know that having someone in that environment long term is not a healthy environment for anyone.”

Funny. I’m sure I have some clients who would agree with him.

This is, however, a just outcome to Mr. Couch’s story, especially considering that his original sentence was probation–until he absconded to Mexico. While two years in prison for recklessly killing four people is arguably on the lighter side, at least it’s something. Make no mistake, if Couch wasn’t from a wealthy family, he would have been sentenced appropriately to begin with.

Which Punishment? Probation vs. Jail?

Couch is a fantastic case study for what can happen when the punishment does not fit the crime. A serious crime, even from a first-time offender, needs to be punished accordingly. In this case, killing four people while driving drunk is a serious crime, to understate the situation drastically. If probation was ever going to be a true punishment in this case, it needed to have significant teeth: jail time as a condition, strict curfews, massive amounts of community service and outreach, severe fines, drug and alcohol testing. As it stands, the previous probation was a slap on the wrist; indeed, it did nothing to prevent Couch from fleeing the country to Mexico with his mother. If he had been given prison time to begin with, that never would have been an issue.

Do not misunderstand, I am not advocating for prison time in every single case, first-time offender or otherwise. Probation, though, is not something that should be given lightly; it is meant to show a level of trust in the offender him- or herself and their ability to internalize the punishment. What I mean by that is, the person’s capacity for learning from their mistakes. That is one of the keys to punishment and should be one of the most important questions that judges and juries ask themselves. Can this person learn from their mistakes? Can they be a productive member of society even though they committed a potentially heinous crime?

This is a fascinating issue to me, and I’m sure I’ll have more on it in the future.

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