1 Texas' underage alcohol abusers often re-offend, avoid treatment By SELWYN CRAWFORD, DIANE JENNINGS and DARLEAN SPANGENBERGER / The Dallas Morning News Published 03 January :17 AM When a 17-year-old is arrested for DWI, he may be just a baby to mom and dad. But in the eyes of Texas, he's an adult. "I cannot tell you the number of parents who cried and moaned, who walked into the court when I was trying a 17- or 18-year-old, saying, 'They just brought him home the first 10 times,' " said Clay Abbott, DWI resource prosecutor for the Texas District and County Attorneys Association. "I said, 'Yeah, he was a juvenile then. Now he's mine.' " As adults too young to legally drink, 17- to 20-year-olds fall into a special category in Texas: "minor adults." They can be ticketed for infractions such as merely being around alcohol; but, if arrested for driving while intoxicated, they are treated as adults. Juveniles can't go to jail, their blood cannot be tested without permission, and their records can't be disclosed. Even when drinking and driving, they're usually only ticketed, and the system offers them numerous breaks. But minor adults, like all adults, can be required to take blood alcohol tests, or their refusal can be used against them. They can be held in jail, with older, hardened criminals. The offense stays on the record forever. Experts say minor adults pose a challenge for the criminal justice system: They're more likely to drink harder and faster, and they're more likely to re-offend - but they often avoid the help the system offers by taking jail time instead of probation with treatment. Binge drinking The 17 to 20 years are prime time for binge drinking at high school pasture parties and college frat blowouts. At a recent alcohol awareness class for minors in McKinney, girls giggled and boys nodded their heads knowingly when instructor Rickey Haynes referred to various
2 drinking games such as "Edward Fortyhands," where drinkers tape to their hands two 40-ounce containers of alcohol that they cannot remove until empty. "I would say two-thirds of 16- to 20-year-olds are binge drinkers," said James Fell, senior program director at the Pacific Institute for Research and Evaluation. "They only drink to get drunk. They drink - males - five or more drinks in two hours, for females four or more drinks within two hours. They drink to get smashed." The state says drivers under 21 make up about 6 percent of Texas licensed drivers, but are responsible for 12 percent of all alcohol-related fatalities. Not every young adult arrested for DWI is addicted to alcohol, but treatment would help many underage drinkers avoid full-blown alcoholism. Jane Maxwell, a researcher at the University of Texas at Austin School of Social Work, recently co-wrote a study of more than 7,000 offenders admitted to state-funded treatment programs after a DWI arrest or referral. "I was surprised at how young they were," Maxwell said of the subjects of the study. "I went into it thinking these are kids who are in their 20s, they're college kids, they're working. [But] the average age is 17 - they're really young." 'Close together' Some young offenders pick up a second offense within a few months of their first one, said Dallas defense attorney Pete Schulte. "The young kids I get that have multiple DWIs usually get them very close together. I haven't been able to figure it out. I don't know if it's kind of a mental thing, 'God, I'm really a failure, what's going to stop me?' Or if it really is an addiction, and they just can't stop." The younger the offender, the more likely they are to re-offend, said Fell. According to a Dallas Morning News analysis of about 5,700 alcohol-related offenders in municipal court from 2004 to 2009, about 9 percent have already re-offended. Some rack up as many as five offenses by their early 20s. Of those who got a DWI charge in Dallas County criminal court between the ages of 17 and 20 from 1999 to 2009, about 30 percent have already committed at least one other offense.
3 Help is available if minor adults opt for probation. Dallas county judges generally prefer it, particularly for first-time offenders, because they can be required to undergo alcohol evaluation, alcohol education, treatment and monitoring through technological devices such as ignition interlock or alcohol intake bracelets. But a lot of young offenders bypass those often restrictive requirements - and the treatment - by simply opting for a few days in county jail. "It used to be everybody went on probation and went to DWI class," Maxwell said. "Now they're not. They're all bailing out." Probation is "not for everybody," said Plano defense attorney Todd Shapiro. For many, it is too costly and time consuming. "People that can't afford lawyers, people that have a hard time making ends meet, probation is not appropriate for them," Shapiro said. "You've got to be able to take time off work. They're going to make you take community service - it's a huge commitment." Jail time brief Time in county jail usually is brief. Dallas County inmates generally earn three days for every one served, so a 90-day sentence rarely lasts more than 30. Many offenders serve their sentence by the time their case comes to court. Some offenders opt for a brief jail stint because they know they may not be able to stay sober long enough to complete probation. And a sentence for violating probation could be harsher in the long run. But the jail time young offenders take also keeps them out of treatment that could help them avoid re-offending. "It's very clear, whether you're talking about a DWI, intoxication level offense at the juvenile level, the misdemeanor level or the felony level, you're never going to get the treatment you need if you're in confinement," Schulte said. Irving police Officer Stephen W. Burres III has seen what happens with unchecked underage drinking. In 2004, a 20-year-old woman was ticketed for hitting a Dallas police car while drinking. Seven months later, Euless police found the woman passed out at a stoplight, a bottle of vodka in hand.
4 "Exactly 10 days after being arrested in Euless, she made a U-turn on 183 [in Irving] and ran head-on into a van and killed a child" and injured several other people, said Burres, head of Irving's DWI unit. She was sentenced to three years in prison for intoxication manslaughter and 10 years of probation for intoxication assault. Prosecutor Abbott said the criminal justice system would have a "much higher success rate" if intensive supervision and treatment were used for teenage offenders, "when we have a chance to fix them." That focused approach is currently employed in Dallas' DWI courts, which target repeat offenders. "Wouldn't it be lovely if we had those resources for first-time offenders," Abbott asked, "and not third time?" DMN INVESTIGATES: UNDERAGE DWI About 30 percent of people ages 17 to 20 who were arrested in Dallas County for DWI from 1999 to 2009 went on to re-offend. Experts say this age group poses a challenge for the criminal justice system: They're more likely to drink harder and faster and they're more likely to re-offend. But they often avoid the help the system offers by taking jail time instead of probation with treatment. BY THE NUMBERS: 'MINOR ADULTS' "Minor adults" between the ages 17 to 20 are too young to drink legally outside the presence of their parents. Like all minors, they can get misdemeanor tickets for even being around alcohol. But they are treated as adults if arrested for driving while intoxicated. These young people, like all adults, can be required to take blood alcohol tests, or their refusal can be used against them. They can be held in jail, with older, hardened criminals. The offense stays on the record forever. The size of the problem of young adults who drink and drive is difficult to determine because they are prosecuted in municipal courts and justice of the peace courts, for which records are not readily available. The Dallas Morning News analyzed Dallas County court records of 2,586 individuals ages 17 to 20 who were arrested for DWI, intoxication assault or intoxication manslaughter from 1999 to Among these minor adults (between 17 and 20), the analysis found:
5 768 were arrested again for an alcohol-related offense. Unlike older adults, minor adults who are not old enough to drink alcohol can be arrested for other alcohol infractions, including driving under the influence (but not being legally intoxicated); possessing or consuming any amount of alcohol. Those cases are handled in municipal and justice of the peace courts and are punishable by fines and community service. The News also analyzed Dallas municipal court records of about 5,000 cases of individuals ages 17 to 20 who were arrested for these types of offenses* between 2004 and Among these minor adults, the analysis found: 1,446 were arrested for driving under the influence 3,521 were arrested for minor in possession 99 were arrested for minor in consumption * Cases total more than the sum of individual arrests because some people are cited with more than one offense. Public intoxication citations were not evaluated. The majority of those are not believed to involve drivers. SOURCES: Dallas Morning News research, Texas District and County Attorneys Association