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One person’s experience with deferred adjudication for DWI

After I posted about the bill to allow deferred adjudication for DWI, I received the following email from a reader, who gave me permission to publish it.

Deferred adjudication (D.A) ….My brother had it because of a DWI in the early 1990s and failed miserably through it. The conditions of D.A. are so onerous that it’s easy to trip up. One time he had a substance abuse relapse, and missed going to the parole officer because he knew his drug test would not be clean (and didn’t pay his fine for the month either). As a result, the Harris County parole officer issued a warrant for his arrest which eventually sent him to prison for 2 years. I tried to intervene and suggest a way that he might turn himself in voluntarily and pay a fine in exchange for the 1 missed visit. But the parole officer said, once the warrant was issued, there was no rescinding it. In other words, there was no incentive for my brother to turn himself in, so he found a retail management job and worked there for a year. For a year, he supported his family without any further drug relapses until the police finally caught up with him (they always do because they can find a work address through your IRS/W2 information). Ironically, despite the fact that my brother was working legitimately and raising a family without drug or alchohol relapses, after he was re-arrested for missing the parole visit, the state sued him for child support even though he was still married. Apparently when he was locked up, his wife applied for food stamps and CHIP for the children. The State of Texas wanted that money back. Of course, he eventually had to explain to the court that the only reason he couldn’t support the children was because the state had locked him up in the first place.

During those two years when he was in prison for breaking the terms of his deferred adjudication, the mother and her children also went basically homeless, having to double up with various family members.

This year my brother had another DWI (after one he had 14 years ago). Due to some fluke in the law, he ended up being classified as a repeat offender and rather than take 5 or 10 years of hard time, he plea bargained for 1 month jail time + 6 months rehab + probation. That was considered “lenient” in Texas.

The result: he lost his well-paying management job, and his wife and 3 young kids lost their house as a result. For the last 2 months, they are basically homeless (now living temporarily with a friend and for a month with my mom). The oldest girl is in school but can’t get HISD to give her a ride to school (that may be resolved by January, I don’t know). (That’s why your other post about homeless children rang true to me). My mother and my brother’s siblings are now having to support his family while the wife looks for a job and tries to find more permanent housing. We are very gloomy about his chances of getting a job that pays as well as the one he had before the release.

My brother is borderline pathological, he lies sometimes and occasionally drinks too much (though no drugs anymore). But he’s been a law abiding citizen for the past 3 years and a good dad. His track record of following all the procedures of parole/probation/D.A. has been poor; it almost seems as though he is being imprisoned not for DWI or drugs but simply failure to pay his monthly fines or meet his parole officer. In theory it sounds reasonable to require that a person see his parole officer regularly, but he has always been busy driving kids to doctor’s appointments and school events (not to mention going to work). That doesn’t include the AA meetings he is usually required to attend (which eventually he stops doing ). Also, we all have strong feelings about the earlier decision to take deferred adjudication. Maybe it would be helpful for some people, but there are so many conditions attached that it entangles you permanently in the system. My brother just kept making minor infractions (not paying the monthly fine, skipping a meeting with the parole officer, not going to AA, etc). It was probably my brother’s worst decision to accept that; in retrospect, he should have just done the jail time and get it over with.

Off-topic: why can’t breathalizer ignition systems be mandatory on all cars? After the 2nd DWI they put a breathalizer on his car, and I thought that would be it. But Texas wanted to lock him up as well. I understand the need to prevent drunk people from getting in front of the wheel, but isn’t it enough to cripple the individual’s car until he takes a breathalizer test?

As my brother says, he knows what incarceration is about. He has been there before. He feels genuine remorse for the trouble he has caused. He is used to having to start over again after prison. But each career interruption lowers his income potential and disrupts the life of his wife and children. It ends up costing the state of Texas more money, and it has cost his family lots of money and heartache.

This is a nonviolent case which never needed to require prison. Even deferred adjudication can be a disaster if the terms are so onerous as to make messups inevitable. The problem with parole and probation is that usually you don’t have the right to contest the charge, and the panels can act arbitrarily and has full discretion. Once my brother signed up for D.A./parole/probation, he was completely at the mercy of the penal system whose solution for everything seems to be imprisonment.

Obviously, no one person’s case is representative of everyone, but the issues cited about how onerous probation can be are well known. Seeing it personalized like that was very compelling, and I thought it was a story that was worth sharing. I am very thankful to the reader who sent it to me and allowed me to publish it.

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6 Comments

  1. Ron in Houston says:

    The letter writer touched on an issue I see often. I call it the “collateral damage” of incarceration. When a parent gets incarcerated it greatly affects the children. When a person loses a good paying job and then cannot find employment everyone affiliated with that person suffers.

    I’m not saying that people should avoid consequences for their actions, I just think we need to rethink our incarceration mentality.

  2. Peter Wang says:

    Just wait until someone whose loved one was killed by a drunk driver gets a chance to comment on this post. Everyone better put on asbestos underwear. The collateral damage of being killed is greater than that of going to prison – because you’re dead!

  3. Al Clarke says:

    I truly am empathetic for the brother in the letter and the writer of the letter you shared with us. However, what about the repeated risk the brother (convicted drunk driver) puts innocent Texans at by repeatedly (key word here – repeatedly) driving under the influence? The offender in the above letter obviously had/has chronic problems with alcohol and needs help. Jail has not proven effective in changing his behavior or maybe it has since he seems to have managed to stay clean for an extended time when jail was an obvious outcome (after the issuance of a warrant for failing to appear, and other violations of probation).
    Deferred adjudication as a sentence for DWI is a great tool to help offenders demonstrate that they made a mistake, will not repeat the behavior, and will accept help for their alcohol related behavior. Of course there are rules and regulations that an offender is expected to adherre to and comply with. Afterall, probation or deferred adjudication is not suppose to be a slap on the wrist, rather the goal is to monitor behavior, assist with changing behavior, intervention when appropriate, and providing public safety in return for not placing the offender in jail or prison. Deferred adjudication is not an appropriate sentence for everyone charged and convicted of DWI. I am glad the Texas Legislature is again considering deferred adjudication for DWI offenders, but hope it is a limited sentencing option that is not available for repeat offenders, but rather offered to first time offenders. Repeat offenders need serious intervention including incarceration to hopefully alter their behavior and to protect society from their irresponsible acts.
    Sadly, public safety means there will be collateral damage in many ways. The defendant may be jailed or imprisoned, lose his/her job, suffer stigma from society because of their conviction, and have great difficulty reintegrating into society, but those are the consequences of being a convicted of a crime. DWI can and sadly does result in the loss of life of innocent people who were just in the wrong place at the wrong time and are killed by a druck driver. That is the ulmitate in victimization. The victim’s family and friends are also collateral damage because of the trauma and loss of a love one. The family of the offender is likewise traumatized because of their loss of a loved one. The families of the offender and victim suffer but their loss is not the same. The victim’s family, in many cases, suffers without their loved one because of his/her death, whereas the offender’s family ultimatley sees a return of their loved one. Criminal behavior has consequences that are easily seen and unseen and those convicted of DWI should not be seen as less serious offenders. DWI remains a major problem in TX and public safety should remain a, if not the, major concern for our courts when handling such cases and individuals.

  4. robert kane says:

    Wow, where to start on this one….
    I get both sides of the argument, but what’s the fix?

    I have a problem with the way the system works because once you’ve made a mistake, or should I say been caught (because we’ve all made mistakes, maybe just not caught doing it) you are now part of the “system”. I have known and spoken to people that just can’t get right after, because it’s on your record, job loss, family disruption, housing loss, whatever. Seems like even after someone pays the fine/does their time they are forever branded as such making getting a new job almost impossible. Which in turn causes them to do desperate things….steal, rob, sell drugs etc…. Remember the movie trading places?

    There is no recovering from someone that gets killed from a drunk driver, I have friends that have died this way, so how do you forgive (as religious as everyone claims to be, forgiveness seems to be a missing virtue)

    But now here is the part I don’t get…. I have lived in Florida, Massachusetts and spent a lot of time in California, people there are AFRAID to drink and drive because of the enforcement that is CONSTANTLY being done. This doesn’t mean no one does it, just much , much fewer than in Texas do. Anyone I know personally in Houston never mentions the fear of getting a DUI because the odds are so slim. I even asked a police officer why there’s no enforcement at night on 59 south when the bars close, he replied it takes too much time to process a DUI and it takes him and a patrol car out of action for about 3-4 hours.

    The other thing I notice is that bars in Houston serve people that are INTOXICATED!!! They are almost falling down and still get a drink. I have seen situations where people staggered to their car (in front of the off duty police working at a club) get into their car and drive away….WTF?

    Now, how about all the cantinas and after hours places that are open and still serving beer….I shake my head in disbelief that this goes on. When friends ask me where I live, I say Houston Mexico…. they ask why I say Mexico and I say so many things here make you feel like you are in Mexico and I’m not referring to the ethnicity of the people, I mean how the government, police and TABC operate.

    The list of things that happen here that don’t happen in other major US cities justifies that statement.

    I know alot of people will say if I don’t like it, why don’t I move…. I may or I may not, but it was the principle reason I attempted a run at City Council, I never aspired to be a politician, but if I’m willing to complain, I need to be willing to try to change what’s wrong. I may try again or assist a candidate I believe in.

  5. Ron in Houston says:

    Obviously vehicular manslaughter and DWI aren’t the same thing.

    I think my comment was more directed to the idea that there are ways to punish people and change behavior other than incarceration or by being so onerous that one mistake ruins the rest of their lives.

    The problem is that things like “being tough on crime” are easy sells. Dealing with the actual issues and all the people involved (perpetrators, victims, families) is not so easy.

    Many criminal defense attorneys recommend their clients just do some time rather than trying to deal with the harshness of the probation/deferred adjudication system. That system seems more designed to make people fail rather than to rehabilitate.

    I don’t really have any solutions. I’m more just making observations from my personal experiences.

  6. Al Clarke says:

    Upon a second look at the letter shared via this blog there was another item that concerned me. Specifically the author’s comment…”why can’t breathalizer ignition systems be mandatory on all cars? After the 2nd DWI they put a breathalizer on his car, and I thought that would be it. But Texas wanted to lock him up as well. I understand the need to prevent drunk people from getting in front of the wheel, but isn’t it enough to cripple the individual’s car until he takes a breathalizer test?”
    The view that all cars should be equipped with a breathalyzer device is ridiculous and clearly is an infringment on me and other drivers who have not been found guilty of or accused of DWI. I resent the view that, sadly is somewhat prevalent, that ALL citizens should be inconvenienced because of the actions of a minority (folks arrested for and convicted of DWI). I believe intoxalyzer devices in vehicles only prevent the operation of a vehicle if the driver fails the test prior to ignition of the vehicle or fails a test after turning the vehicle off. These devices do not have the ability to shutdown a car on the road without the vehicle first being turned off. The bility to drive drunk can be reduced by these devices by preventing ignition of the car and stopping a drunk driver from returning to the road if the vehicle is turned off following a failed test. Simply installing a breathalyzer device on a repeat convicted DWI offender (author notes this was her brother’s second DWI) suggests that is the limit of the sanction she expected her brother to receive. Why wouldn’t the State of TX want to “lock up” a repeat DWI offender to reduce the likelihood he/she will continue to drive recklessly and irresponsibly thus threatening the safety of others? I support alternative sentencing for drug and alcohol related offenses, but at some point repeat offenders must be severly sanctioned for the protection of society as a whole. The author of the letter fails to realize that her brother earned time in jail for his repeated failure to address his alcohol problem and for failure to comply with court ordered conditions of deferred adjudication or probation/parole. If someone who is convicted fails to follow the rules and regulations expected – fail to report, submit a dirty urine, violate the law, non-payment of fines, fees, and restitution – then they should expect to be jailed. Jail may not be the final solution but it certainly can be a tool to get the attention of the offender and assist with modifying behavior.