Most drunken drivers like John Patrick Barton mark time in the Texas prison system without specialized treatment, only to return to the streets and potentially to their drinking.Sen. Whitmire has a point: The lock-em-up approach didn't work with this guy. He's been to prison twice (which means he's been convicted at least five times) and he still didn't quit drinking and driving. He's not alone, either. Texas sent 5,128 people to prison in FY 2009 for DWI, all of whom had 3 DWI convictions or more. Many, however, do their time without kicking their addiction, leaving prison as essentially dry drunks who fall back into old habits when they return to the free world. For these folks, prison in and of itself isn't changing their behavior. That's why
And with Texas facing a monstrous $18 billion budget hole next year, what prison treatment programs the state does offer may be sharply reduced or eliminated, officials said Tuesday.
Some vowed to try to protect treatment programs from the budget cuts.
"How in the world can the state of Texas lock somebody up for being a DWI offender and not spend any time trying to get them an opportunity or the ability to deal with their drinking?" asked Senate Criminal Justice Committee chairman John Whitmire.
He said he reviewed Barton's case after news of Sunday's fatal crash and was dismayed to see that he had "skated" while in prison, not receiving treatment for addiction.
"We've had him in prison twice and done nothing to treat his alcoholism. And now we have a tragedy," said Whitmire, D-Houston.
Barton was free on parole after his third drunken-driving conviction when, authorities say, he plowed into a car early Sunday in Lewisville, killing Kandace Hull, 33, and her daughter Autumn Caudle, 13, and injuring her husband and their two other children.
Marc Levin, a criminal justice policy adviser for the conservative Texas Public Policy Foundation research group, said he would rather mothball outdated prisons than cut treatment programs.
It is a bipartisan approach that makes sense, he said.
"You're talking about people with a severe alcohol problem. They're all going to get out. It's vital to make sure they go through a program that has a track record of being successful so they don't endanger anyone anymore," Levin said.
In many cases, the programs work, said Whitmire, whose criminal justice committee will hold special hearings this summer on DWI laws.
Texas already has some of the toughest laws on the books to fight DWI, and longer punishments won't work as well as treating someone when you have them, he said.
Whitmire said the Barton case is the example that all lawmakers looking at cutting programs should think about next session.
"This is a tragedy, but as I read the report and go back through this person's history and how the system has treated him, it's just a classic case of mishandling a DWI offender from the very first time we had him," Whitmire said.