'Affluenza' teen's sentence reveals wealth bias in legal system

When I heard that Judge Jean Boydgave Ethan Couch, an “affluenza” afflicted teen, a slap on the wristfor killing four people while driving intoxicated, my growing fear of there being two different versions of justice at work in America — one for the working class and one for the rich and powerful — was all but confirmed.

Here’s what happened: a then-16-year-old Texan Couch was driving 30 mph above the speed limit when he lost control of his dad’s truck and slammed into a group of Good Samaritans helping a woman whose car had broken down, killing four and injuring nine in the crash. The teenager’s blood alcohol level was three times the legal limit.

The case drew national attention when Couch's defense used the term “affluenza," painting the teen as the victim of an over-privileged lifestyle that had eroded his sense of responsibility. In other words, Couch’s defenders argued that the teen should not be imprisoned because his rich parents spoiled him too much.



Last Wednesday, Judge Boyd sentenced Couch to a lenient 10 years’ probation as well as a minor stint in rehab.

You needn’t more obvious proof than this verdict to see that socioeconomic class can lessen the severity of a crime. Suppose a kid from a poor African-American family had been in Ethan Couch’s position. Considering the extraordinary rate of juvenile incarceration for African-American youth(and for far less egregious crimes, no less), it’s not just likely but guaranteed that this kid would be behind bars.

Couch’s attorney, Reagan Wynn,defendedthe judge’s sentence, reminding the public that the juvenile system’s job is to reform kids, not toss them into jail as failed citizens.

“If the point of the juvenile system is to rehabilitate these kids and make them productive members of society, then the judge did absolutely the right thing,” Wynn said. “If the point of the juvenile justice system is all about vengeance, then she didn’t do the right thing.”

As much as I would like to agree with Wynn, Couch does not deserve to live comfortably in a rehab facility that screams spa (his family had offered to pay for a $450,000-a-year rehabilitation center near Newport Beach, Calif.) for a crime as dire as intoxication manslaughter, especially not when the legal system is ravaging the futures of poor, minority teens daily for minor drug offenses and petty thievery.

The affluenza diagnosis becomes even more disturbing when compared to the legal defense used on behalf of teenage minority criminals, which is actually quite similar to affluenza, albeit rarely as successful. These young criminals cite the circumstances of their lives to explain their crimes, be it poverty, gang pressure or drug-addled parents. But unlike Couch, they lack the paralegal resources to game the system, and so we jail them.

The sad reality is that Ethan Couch still has more to offer to society (even after screwing up) than a kid from a poor minority family. We as a society revere the wealthy, and as a consequence, our system is rigged to provide them a larger legal cushion. To not grant this leniency would diminish the grandeur of our own American Dream.

But the perks of being rich should not factor into the courtroom. The classist bias evinced in Couch’s case has absolutely no place in the juvenile legal system and flies in the face of the phrase, “Equal justice before the Law.”

Reach the columnist at Alexander.Elder@asu.edu or follow him on Twitter @ALEXxElder

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