16-year-old Ethan Couch from Fort Worth, Texas was sentenced to 10 years of probation after driving drunk with a blood alcohol content of 0.24 — three times the legal limit — and killing four people. The defense in his trial proved that Ethan suffered from a mysterious ailment referred to as “affluenza.” For those who don’t know, affluenza is a psychological condition experienced by young wealthy people who feel unmotivated and uninspired to take life seriously due to their massive stockpiles of disposable income combined with a lack of parental guidance.
I honestly have no idea if prison is the proper place for a minor who irresponsibly causes the deaths of four people. Hell, I can think back on so many ridiculously juvenile activities I participated in back in my teen years that it is truly a miracle that I made it to adulthood unscathed. But the point is that the modern day criminal justice system has taken a firm stance on how willing it is to mercilessly incarcerate young people who aren’t rich who commit adult crimes.
Presiding Judge Jean Boyd ruled that imposing a harsher sentence on Ethan than 10 years probation plus rehabilitation at a resort home would not console the families of the dead victims he murdered. Judge Boyd stated that his parents had never taught Ethan that there are potential consequences to his actions, so ultimately he is not to blame for the deaths he caused. It’s a powerful statement, especially when considering that the lenient punishment Judge Boyd handed down for Ethan’s crimes might have actually reinforced that notion in his mind.
So if affluenza is a justifiable defense for a neglected wealthy child who didn’t know better, why isn’t that same consideration given to less fortunate minors who lacked parental guidance? Is money the factor that separates Judge Boyd’s lenient sentence for Ethan from the 10-year prison sentence she issued to a 14-year-old black teen who was convicted of killing one person with a punch? Are we suggesting that only the children of rich parents can be rehabilitated and converted into contributing members of society, while the poor children and families are better served with incarceration?
Besides the obvious insult to the families of the victims, the most troubling takeaway from Ethan’s sentence is the legal precedent that it sets. If this ruling holds, it will undoubtedly not be the last time we hear of the affluenza defense. Rich families with problematic children have just been awarded a get-out-of-jail-free card that only a small percentage of the population can take advantage of. This is essentially a member’s-only subset of criminal defense where you aren’t allowed in until you reach a certain tax bracket.
The poor-versus-rich debate is not a new discussion topic when assessing the U.S. criminal justice system. A quick search engine query can provide you with thousands of articles implying that America has two justice systems: one tailored to those with money, and one for those without. Statistics have proven that people who are financially better off are convicted less often, and are given more lenient sentences than citizens who are not. There are stark contrasts when comparing the quality of legal aid a person who can afford a private attorney experiences as opposed to a person who cannot and is awarded an overworked, underpaid public defender.
I’m not going suggest that a wealthy child who has two lackluster parents who are too busy being rich to provide a healthy upbringing is any better off than an impoverished child living in the slums in a single-parent household. Ultimately, rich kids needs positive parental influences just as much as poor kids do. But here in America, it seems to be clear that both of the children in those scenarios will be treated very differently when entering the criminal justice system.