On Dec. 17th, Ethan Couch, age 16, was sentenced to 10 years of rehabilitation after admitted to driving drunk and killing four people. The reason for his light sentence according to the judge was that the defense successfully proved that he suffered from affluenza.
If you clicked on the Wikipedia link I provided for this condition (a condition which doesn’t even pass my spell check), I think that one could conclude that if someone was suffering from this condition, this could certainly impact their decision process greatly and make them likely to be reckless and careless.
Now I am a strong supporter of psychological treatment and the impacts our parents have on our development and decision-making processes. We over-incarcerate far too much in this country and I am especially for providing our young with psychological treatment over incarceration because study after study shows how the earlier we recognize a behavior (whether due to a traumatic event or crappy parents) we can correct that behavior.
Ethan is a rich, white kid. Worst-case scenario his parents are selfish assholes who spent little time with him, who enjoyed the privilege that money has given them. They probably flouted laws themselves knowing that as an upstanding member of the community they probably wouldn’t get too many speeding tickets if pulled over, and even if they did they could pay any fine. Remembering, I’m sure, to mention to the cop that they might have a talk with some politician of theirs who is a friend and talk about possibly reducing the budget of the police force after a generous donation to that politician’s re-election campaign. When you have ridiculous sums of cash, the law is always on your side. After 16 years of seeing such behavior and without your parents giving you the time a day, I would say that your sense of right and wrong would be screwed up. Your attachment to reality would also be screwed up, because you literally don’t understand how most of the world lives when the only other people you know are also filthy rich. So I support the idea that it is at least possible that bad, extremely rich parents can screw up their kid so badly that he would do something so terrible. I mean there was no intent to kill here, but this is always the danger of drinking and driving, and punishments are often quite harsh for most people. Now most people are outraged by the judge’s verdict of affluenza, and for good reason. I am among one of those outraged, but perhaps for slightly different reasons.
The case raises numerous philosophical questions for me. At what age do we become blameless for the mistakes of our parents? Should parents ever be made responsible for crimes their children commit? How long does the psychological impacts of things that happen in our childhood last? How long can we use them as an excuse for poor decisions that we make? A child that is raised to hate African-Americans will probably hate African-Americans, but will he ever commit a hate crime? Who knows, but if he did, would it be an acceptable excuse to use the fact that your parents taught you to hate as a defense? If the kid committed the crime at 13, is that adult enough? Would we still all be as outraged at the verdict? What about traumatic events like sexual abuse or physical abuse? These things have definitely been shown to do psychological damage for possibly the rest of one’s life. It seems reasonable that if you reinforced from childhood that a certain behavior is acceptable, you will likely feel that way as an adult. The condition of affluenza, however, is perhaps not as legitimate as one thinks, at least according to one of the co-producers of the 1997 PBS documentary on the subject. As John de Graaf points out, that in a capitalistic, consumer based society such as ours, we may all suffer from this to a certain degree. Furthermore he says it is not a psychological condition, but rather a societal criticism. Affluenza is not a condition recognized by the American Psychological Association.
But let’s say that even if we accept that bad parenting seriously messed up this kid, a whole host of other questions come to mind. How often can we use psychological conditions as a defense? Are such rulings equally applied to all such cases? If there is a psychological condition that can be contracted by rich kids, what psychological condition does poverty cause and can these not be made for their defense when they commit crimes?
The same judge gave a 14 year old African-American a much harsher sentence for a much lesser crime the previous year. One only has to look at the amount of minorities and poor people in the prison system, who commited crimes that did not lead to anyone’s death, to be convinced that such defenses as affluenza or any other defense based on psychological damage in their upbringing has not been successful. The impacts of poverty on children, in fact, is a far greater reason actually for “deviant” behavior as young adults and is actually well researched within the psychological community. Ultimately this is why I am so enraged. There is probably no greater slap in the face the legal system could give to the poor than this verdict. A compassionate sentence is either deserved by all or by none. Whether you think incarceration helps society or not, there cannot be any true justice when it does not apply equally to all citizens. If prison isn’t the answer for Ethan Couch then at the very least he should be made to volunteer and live in an inner city neighborhood. If society truly believed in his correction then he won’t receive the education he sorely needs which is compassion and understanding for how the rest of society lives, especially since he hasn’t been punished in a way that the rest of society is punished for similar crimes. His parents are paying $450,000/year to go to this swanky facility in California. I shudder to think how many lives could be made better with that money instead of teaching one kid a lesson that would perhaps be better taught in other ways. There is nothing inherently more valuable about Ethan Couch than any other youth who has been sent to a juvenile detention center or jail. As income disparity mounts every branch of our government still continues to help the smallest minority ; the rich. How long can we live in this illusion that we are the best country when we incarcerate more people than those places we consider our enemy and backwards in thinking? How long can we live in the illusion of trickledown economics? How long can we live in the illusion of the American Dream that all you have to do is work hard and that dream will come true? This case is as much about racism and inequality as the George Zimmerman case and it is even more of a reason to be outraged at where our country is headed. Don’t confuse the meanings of money and value. Nobody is better person just because they have money and it’s time the government and the justice system stopped acting like this was true.