Ohhhhhkay, here we go – Shamefully, it’s taken me until today (months after the story broke) to find out about Ethan Couch and the new legal precedent of ‘affluenza.’
What am I talking about? It’s the story of a teen who, intoxicated from the use of alcohol and pharmaceuticals, killed four people in an auto accident and seriously injured two. His defense in court was that he was raised to have such a sense of entitlement and lack of appreciation for the consequences of his actions that he should face no prison time. The rationale for this was, his privileged upbringing has prevented him from being able to make good decisions, and thus, he should not be held culpable for his behavior as a matter of law. Hmm…
From the “research” I’ve done (which you too can do by googling ‘Ethan Couch affluenza’), it seems the judge in this case felt the defendant had a good shot at rehabilitation if he received treatment and not jail time. Ok, great. That sounds like a wonderful way to analyze many cases (note a distinct lack of sarcasm here). But is this one of those cases??
This kid’s parents are paying for his treatment out of pocket – that’s one thing we should note. Another is that in lieu of them being able to finance his treatment, a facility, likely a prison, would otherwise be the logical place for him to go. Logic, that is, by conventional standards.
So now let’s talk about conventional standards. If a 16 year old who was not affluent walked into court with these charges, jail time would be extremely likely to say the least. Mainly because the court would probably wonder, what else are we going to do with him? What else seems fair? To which we can answer, well, if his family has money, we can make them pay (literally). The rationale would be that treatment could actually help to prepare Ethan for life moving forward (outside of prison).
My question is, wouldn’t that approach always be better? Wouldn’t it always make sense to try and treat people, or make treatment options available to people, especially youth, when they commit crimes? And so what if a family doesn’t have money to finance treatment? Does it become a less good idea to address the factors leading to a youth’s criminality as a way of promoting public safety? I’d say no. But what’s more, the research says incarcerating kids doesn’t promote public safety either.
So to review, it would be better to treat people in general when they commit crimes that are symptomatic of mental health or substance abuse issues, but unless they have the money to finance their own treatment, we generally elect to lock them up instead. Now we also know though, thanks to the Couch case, that not only does money buy the type of sentencing we would all hope for in an ideal world (and lack of money deprives of us this), but copious wealth actually paves the way for a legal defense that negates the criminality of an offender’s behavior.
While the judge in this case went to the length of stating that this solution is what she would have decided even if the ‘affluenza’ defense had not been presented, we are already seeing this approach in action by virtue of the fact that one’s wealth secures treatment rather than punishment for a person’s crimes. The bonus points in Couch come from learning that privilege — in and of itself — is not only a reason for people to receive a lesser or no sentence, it is a reason for people to not be held responsible at all. Whether the judge wanted this to be the takeaway or not, this is what such a case tells us. That your wealth or the wealth of your parents is essentially grounds for erasing the criminality of your actions.
The clincher about this is how distasteful many seem to feel it is for a poor person to claim that his/her lack of privilege precipitated his/her actions. Or to be a bit more concrete, imagine a 16 year old who lacks parental oversight, positive role models, access to quality education and health care, etc. This person commits the crime of selling drugs to make money for food to feed himself and his siblings. He’s arrested. Can’t afford “treatment” for his crimes (which could encompass counseling and a case worker to help make sure he and his siblings are safe at home, that they can get to school, that they’ve had breakfast each morning…) and so what happens?
Is it likely that the judge will ask about the extenuating factors of his life such that his actions can become more understandable and thus easier to address through non-punative measures? In a word, no. And what if this kid was privileged? Super privileged in fact. So much so that he’s selling high-grade coke to kids at his boarding school. Under the Couch doctrine, he’d likely be given much different “options” than those presented to our first defendant, and moreover, his actions might not even be considered criminal at all — he was so used to having boutique drugs at his disposal, he was so unsupervised by his parents that his use never garnered attention, and his anti-social behavior when it comes to drug dealing is apparently just an expression of how affluent he is and thus how removed he is (now permitted to be) from the framework of criminal culpability.
This case stinks because it’s reflective of the ‘conventional standards’ we use for administering justice. And yet, at some point, we have got to start asking, why isn’t every child offered the “option” of treatment? And why would any child be told by our court system that his and his family’s wealth are legitimate reasons for him to recklessly endanger the lives of others, and in this case, to kill??
One thought on “The Couch Doctrine”
Justice in America is not blind. I actually do remember hearing about this now. This case is appalling because privilege was so blatantly used to receive preferential treatment from the law. Yet, it’s important to keep in mind that this happens ALL the time, in a much more sinister and pernicious form whereby the rich receive preferential treatment from judges but pretextual reasons are given rather than explicitly stating it’s because the defendant is rich.
Liberals have been making this argument for years: we must approach culpability with a broad lens accounting for the circumstances of the defendant. Yet, the argument seems to only succeed in certain contexts.
Matt Taibbi has written a book called “Divide: American Injustice in the Age of the Wealth Gap” that seems relevant here. Looks good. Hope to read it this summer!
Thanks for posting.
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