Last month in Waxahachie parolee Blas Hernandez, Jr. was given his second life sentence by Ellis County courts for his latest DWI conviction. Hernandez began his string of DWIs back in 1992 when he was arrested twice in the same year. His pattern of drunk driving continued into 1996. By 1997 Hernandez had added assaulting police officers to his drunken exploits. After his third trial in 1997, Hernandez received a life sentence for driving while intoxicated. Despite the life sentence, Hernandez only spent eleven years in prison before he was paroled.
November first of last year while out on parole, Hernandez was busted again. The front of his car was badly damaged and concerned officers pulled him over. A blood sample confirmed that Hernandez’s blood alcohol level was more than twice the legal limit. Hernandez now faces a second consecutive life sentence.
Upset Cries from the Court
The Ellis County District Attorney Patrick Wilson wrote a passionate statement criticizing the parole board for letting Hernandez go and asking elected officials to prevent the situation from reoccurring. It is frustrating for one side of the criminal justice system to implement harsh punishments for repeat drunk drivers while the other side diminishes the severity of those sentences by offering parole. Wilson’s letter indicates that he believes placing Hernandez on parole threatened the general safety of the public and also wasted government resources with an additional trial.
It is worth noting that WFAA reports the parole board rejected Hernandez four separate times before releasing him on parole. The parole board has a difficult part to play in the criminal justice system. The board has to balance three important factors: 1) is the criminal a public threat, 2) has the individual changed for the better enabling he or she to contribute to society, and 3) is the system so overcrowded that pressure to parole prisoners can be overwhelming. In this case, the parole board may have gotten it wrong. Hernandez left prison only to offend again. If the parole board is failing to meet its obligations, what other government systems can help to shape a safer, more just future? That’s just the first question of many facing the justice system as we all strive to find a better solution to the problem of drunk driving.
Can a Leopard Change its Spots?
Twenty years of convictions including eleven years of prison time were not enough to change his behavior. How can we tell when a drunk driver has reformed? What could enable the parole board to better assess the likelihood of drunk drivers continuing to make the same mistake. How can we help to implement better reform programs? Unfortunately, it is difficult to know when someone has learned from their mistakes and Hernandez will not be the only drunk-driving convict to be placed on parole. Not all of them will fail as catastrophically as he did – so what can we do?
There are some opportunities on the technology side. Installing cars that only start after a breathalyzer has been administered could keep offenders on the straight-and-narrow without police oversight. There are non-technology answers like rehab programs and support groups.
It’s too late for Hernandez, but it may not be too late for others out on parole or facing the opportunity for release. Wilson is right – it is essential that we keep the general public safety in mind – but there has to be a way to find positive change.