The news: No one disputes that 16-year-old Ethan Couch was the drunk driver behind the wheel of a car that killed four people and severely injured two others on June 15, 2013 in Forth Worth, Texas.
But people apparently disagree on whether Couch should be punished. Juvenile court judge Jean Boyd accepted the defense's argument that Couch was too rich and privileged to understand the consequences of his actions, a condition that psychologist Dick Miller termed "affluenza."
Couch might have received as many as 20 years in prison for his horrific actions. But for pleading guilty to killing youth pastor Brian Jennings, mother and daughter Hollie and Shelby Boyles, and 24-year-old Breanna Mitchell, he will instead face just 10 years of probation as well as intensive therapy. Miller testified that Couch was the victim of privilege that allowed him to suffer zero consequences for his actions, noting that his parents never punished him for his disastrous lifestyle. One example? Cops discovered him passed out with a naked 14-year-old girl in his car when he was 15, yet he suffered "no consequences." He was allowed to drive at age 13, and according to Miller, was "emotionally flat."
A teen who met Couch said he lived alone in a Texas mansion bought for him by his father and bragged that he could do whatever he wanted.
"The first thing he did was jump in the pool, with his clothes on, rip his shirt off then start downing a big bottle of vodka," said Anthony Lamanna. "He was really knocking it back, he must have drunk about six or seven shots in one go. That set the tone and from then on he was just boasting and trying to impress us about how much he drank and how much he partied. Ethan was just playing drinking games by himself and boasting … no one else was even drinking." When police breathalyzed him after the fatal accident, he blew .24, or three times the legal limit for adults.
In other words, the rules had never applied to Couch, and they didn't need to start applying to him now.
The defense argued that Couch would be better served by two years' intensive therapy and separation from his parents than jail time. Or, as Twitter put it:
Ethan Couch getting off with the "affluenza" defense after killing 4 people is society saying "Ohhhh fuck it, let's just make it official.".— Nativity In The Face (@Notintheface1) December 13, 2013
That doesn't seem right. Especially not when you consider that Couch's dad will be paying the entire $450,000-a-year cost of his treatment.
Meanwhile, our prisons are exploding with mandatory-minimum drug offenders, with the prison population spiking 27% over the past decade. Over 80% of drug offenders have no weapons involvement and very few are involved in violent crime. The average person sent to prison for crack possession will be sentenced to 97 months, or just over eight years. Unless he violates the terms of his probation, Couch won't serve a day in jail.
And affluenza, by the way, isn't real. It's not in the DSM-5, the internationally recognized work which compiles all known psychiatric conditions. Psychologist Christopher J. Ferguson called the term "junk science" and said, "It is ironic that, in arguing Couch is a victim of bad parenting free of consequences for antisocial behavior, the defense and judge appear to have merely continued exactly this pattern, demanding unbelievably soft consequences for the death of four."
Eric Boyles, who lost his wife and daughter in the crash, told CNN, "There are absolutely no consequences for what occurred that day. The primary message has to absolutely be that money and privilege can’t buy justice in this country."
Writer Jessica Ann Mitchell noted on her site Our Legaci that of course, "povertenza" is not, and presumably will never be, an effective defense for the many young, disenfranchised minority youths that comprise much of our prison system. Because sometimes justice isn't blind, and actually looks pretty screwed up.