Though Judge Jean Boyd never uttered the word during sentence, it’s come to characterize the 10 year sentence of probation, with the condition of rehabilitation at a center in Newport Beach, California at a cost of $450,000 a year, footed by his parents. Ethan Couch caught it, affluenza.
The 16-year-old killed four people after stealing a couple of cases of beer from Wal-Mart and plowing into them in his pickup truck. Most people would have time to reflect on this in the quiet of a cell, but not Couch. That’s because he suffered from affluenza, the causes of which range from parental neglect to enduring a life where actions had no consequences. Money was the distinguishing feature of the disease.
And so the word has been widely ridiculed, proof (as if anyone needed it) that the system is different for the rich. This is usually where stories about the poor being sentenced to outrageously long prison terms for crimes of less, even negligible, culpability are put in to fuel the outrage. But you already know them, tens of thousand of them, and this isn’t the point of this post anyway.
Couch’s lawyer, Scott Brown, explained the sentence:
Scott Brown, the boy’s lead defense attorney, said he could have been freed after two years if he had drawn the 20-year sentence.
But instead, the judge “fashioned a sentence that could have him under the thumb of the justice system for the next 10 years,” he told the Star-Telegram.
The families of the victims weren’t comforted by the explanation.
Eric Boyles, who lost his wife and daughter, said the family’s wealth helped the teen avoid incarceration.
“Money always seems to keep you out of trouble,” Boyles said. “Ultimately today, I felt that money did prevail. If you had been any other youth, I feel like the circumstances would have been different.”
In the scheme of rational sentencing philosophy, this sentence is clearly long on rehabilitation and short on the other factors, deterrence and retribution. What differentiates this case isn’t that money worked its magic, but that money was the excuse. Poor little rich boy.
After some of the angst recedes, there are a few elements of this “outrage” that merit thought, aside from one judge in Texas giving one kid with rich parents a sentence that comes off as disgracefully lenient.
Wealth has always mattered, though it isn’t often as flagrantly used as here. On the intake side, rich white kids smoke weed in the privacy of their parents’ estate. Poor black kids smoke weed on the street corner. Rich white kids are Ivy League legacies. Poor black kids are PS 128 drop outs. Rich white kids have parents who will be there when they get in trouble, even if that’s the only time they meet them. Poor black kids may not be sure of their father’s name. These are the lifestyle differences of money, and they matter.
When rich white kids get in trouble, their parents have the wherewithal to get the best legal representation. But it’s not just the lawyer. Sure, a great lawyer makes a difference, but it’s also all the bells and whistles that money can buy, from psychological experts to investigators to forensics to a small army of services available for a price. Poor black kids get a legal aid lawyer, who would love to do everything the lawyer for the rich white kid can do, if only he didn’t carry 150 other cases and have no funds for a bell, no less a whistle.
And lest anyone think this correlates to race, per se, it’s just money. If the black kid has rich parents, then he too will have all the accoutrements of wealth. And if the white kid is poor, then he will get the trash treatment. Money isn’t black or white, but green.
It’s not a crime in America to be wealthy, but it is the source of much anger and jealousy. When the wealthy go down hard (remember Dennis Kozlowski’s infamous $6000 shower curtain?), we applaud the system for not giving the wealthy a free ride. Money isn’t a cure-all, and sometimes there is no amount of it that will save a defendant. Despite the fact that it’s a pretty sick impulse, we relish the schadenfreude.
But what raises our ire about the sentence imposed on Ethan Couch is that we wouldn’t be cut the same break. It’s unfair. It’s so terribly unfair. It’s unfair because it wouldn’t happen for us.
Nobody likes to have their shortcomings rubbed in their face, and for most of us, our shortcoming is that we don’t have Couch-level money. And so, were we in Ethan Couch’s position, we couldn’t pay an expert to opine about how we suffered from affluenza and desperately need a rehab facility with an off-shore breeze instead of prison.
And despite our best, most passionate, arguments, few judges would ignore retribution in favor of rehabilitation to the extent Judge Boyd did here. Kill a few people and you go to prison. Heck, steal a loaf of bread to feed your children and go to prison. That’s how it works for the rest of us.
The sentence imposed on Ethan Couch falls on the extreme end of leniency. It’s troubling in its absence of deterrence and retribution, mostly because we need to believe that these considerations matter or it puts the lie to sentencing for everyone. Most people have a visceral reaction to crime, and blindly embrace retribution in some biblical sense. It’s how we feel.
Yet, rather than hate Couch for the leniency he was shown, or money for making it possible, perhaps the better lesson is that we should all suffer to some degree from affluenza, and the flaw here is that it isn’t an epidemic, but a very rare disease. And the other takeaway might be that our gut reaction, that lengthy prison sentences must invariably be the solution for harm, needs to be tempered.
No, poor black kids can’t offer to spend the next couple of years in long-term rehabilitation with an oceanfront view and four star cuisine. Maybe the cure isn’t denying that option to Couch, but finding an option for poor black kids other than prison forever. The problem isn’t that kids like Couch suffer from affluenza, but that affluenza isn’t contagious,